Champions League no stroll for Guangzhou
When Guangzhou Evergrande kicked off their debut season in the AFC Champions League by thrashing South Korea's Jeonbuk Motors 5-1 last month, it raised hopes the mainland champions might dominate the continental scene like they dealt with domestic opposition in 2011.
But as Guangzhou coach Lee Jang-soo prepares to take on J-League champions Kashiwa Reysol tonight after a 2-1 loss at home to Thailand's Buriram United, the Korean coach is under no illusions about the difficulties his team face in establishing themselves among Asia's elite.
'I have many good players but very few of them have any experience playing in the AFC Champions League,' says Lee (pictured), who steered the club to the second division title in 2010 before cantering to their first Chinese Super League crown last year.
'There's only Zheng Zhi and a couple of others, so they have to learn and get more experience. No one knows anything about it.
'Maybe we have a chance this year to win the AFC Champions League. After this game we have two at home and that's good for us.'
Guangzhou's rapid rise, not only to the top of Chinese football but to becoming one of the most talked about teams in Asia, has astonished even those involved with the club.
Taken over and extensively bankrolled by the Evergrande Real Estate Group in early 2010 after the club were demoted to the second division as a result of their involvement in a match-fixing scandal, Guangzhou strolled to the Jia A title later that year, earning automatic promotion.Buoyed by the signing of Chinese internationals including former Celtic midfielder Zheng and PSV Eindhoven fullback Sun Xiang, Guangzhou went even further, lifting the title.
'It was a five-year plan. But we did everything in two years,' said Lee, who took over early in 2010 after almost three years with Beijing Guoan.
'We're trying to go forward and the club is happy. I don't think the team understand what playing in the Champions League is about yet and we are playing against teams that play a very different style.
'Chinese Super League teams always find the AFC Champions League very difficult. When the Korean or Japanese teams play in their leagues, they only have to travel one or two hours to go to their games.
'But for us in Guangzhou it's much more difficult. We have to travel for six or seven hours when we play against Beijing or some of the other games, and then we have to do the same or more to play in Kashiwa or against Jeonbuk. It's hard for the players and everyone gets tired with the travelling. You don't have this in Europe. Also, the climate is different in Guangzhou - it's warm there but it's cold here in Japan and in Korea. It makes things harder.'