Zheng's Champions League pledge
Andrew Mullen in Guangzhou
China captain Zheng Zhi (pictured) has backed mega-rich Guangzhou Evergrande to take soccer on the mainland to a new level and raise the nation's flagging soccer spirits following another World Cup failure by making a major impact in this year's AFC Champions League.
Former Charlton Athletic and Celtic midfielder Zheng, who captains the Chinese Super League champions, is on the verge of leading his team into the knockout phase of the continental championship. Victory over Jeonbuk Motors tonight at Tianhe Stadium will be enough to seal a spot in the next round of 16.
The top two teams in each of the eight groups of four will progress, and Guangzhou, managed by Lee Jang-soo, sit a point clear on top of Group H with two of six matches remaining.
If they get through, Guangzhou would become only the third team from China to reach the knockout stages of the continent-wide competition in the last five years. With the final round of Asia's qualifying tournament for the 2014 World Cup kicking off in June without Chinese involvement, Guangzhou's success on their continental debut would provide a chance to cheer the team on to match Shenzhen Jianlibao's run to the semi-finals of the 2005 AFC Champions League.
'Fans are disappointed because China did not qualify for the next round of World Cup qualifiers and their interest in Chinese football will decrease,' said Zheng.
'Guangzhou is doing well in the AFC Champions League and we will get support if we qualify for the round of 16, not only from fans in Guangzhou but we are also representing China. If we do well, it will make positive publicity for football in China.'
While Guangzhou have so far beaten the domestic champions from Korea and Japan to top group H, Beijing Guoan and Tianjin Teda have yet to post a win in the AFC Champions League this season and are on the verge of an early exit from the tournament ahead of this week's penultimate round of Group Stage fixtures.
'Chinese clubs are maybe not playing well in the AFC Champions League as they also have to play in the Chinese Super League and it is a big burden,' said Zheng. 'They do not have the resources, so because they think they do not have hope in the AFC Champions League, they focus on the Chinese Super League.
'Our target now is to qualify for the round of 16 and if we achieve this we will need to plan long-term because we want to go further. This is our first AFC Champions League and we lack experience in the competition but Guangzhou has the resources to be able to play in both tournaments. We have an experienced coach and good players.'