Muriqui certain Guangzhou can reach semi-finals
After last year's quarter-final, Brazilian striker is upbeat on his squad's chances in the AFC
Back-to-back Chinese champions Guangzhou Evergrande will go into the last eight of the AFC Champions League next week in the kind of form that has the club's Brazilian striker Muriqui confident of progress to the semi-finals of the continental championship.
Marcello Lippi's side, who lead the Chinese Super League standings by 14 points after notching up a 3-0 win over Dalian Aerbin on Monday evening, face Qatar's Lekhwiya over two legs in the quarter-finals of a competition from which they were eliminated last year at the same stage. The first leg will be held at Tianhe Stadium next Wednesday, with the return in Doha on September 18.
Middle Eastern opposition saw Guangzhou's quest for a first Asian title come to an end in 2012 when Lippi's side succumbed to two-time champions Al Ittihad of Saudi Arabia, but Muriqui - the competition's leading scorer with eight goals in eight games - is confident Evergrande have learned from experience.
"I believe this season Guangzhou are stronger than last year because we are more stable, mature and confident," said the 27-year-old, who opened the scoring against Dalian on Monday evening as Evergrande maintained their advantage over second-placed Shandong Luneng.
"We gained valuable experience from our first season in the AFC Champions League, which will help us to pay attention and overcome any disadvantages and defeat our opponents in the competition, especially against West Asian teams.
"This year is the second season that Guangzhou Evergrande have played in the AFC Champions League. We have the best coach in the world, top players and we have more mature tactics than last year.
"We have also gained a lot of experience in how to beat teams from Japan, Korea, Australia, Thailand and Saudi Arabia, which gives us more confidence and we are more eager to win.
"We lost in the quarter-finals last year; however, we are hoping to move to at least the next stage this year as we have a more experience and stronger squad. We hope that we can achieve a better result than last season and be fighting for the AFC Champions League title at the end."
Muriqui missed the second leg of Guangzhou's last eight encounter in 2012 after a heavy challenge by Al-Ittihad defender Osama al-Harbi resulted in a damaged ankle for the Brazilian that ruled him out for much of the rest of the season.
The striker, though, has picked up where he left off this year, averaging a goal a game amid a string of impressive individual performances by the former Chinese Super League player of the year.
In addition to Muriqui's stellar form, Guangzhou's hopes of advancing to the semi-finals have been bolstered by the addition of another Brazilian, Elkeson, to the squad for the AFC Champions League.
The 24-year-old has been with Guangzhou since the start of the season only to miss out on a place in the squad for the earlier rounds of the competition, but is the leading scorer in the Chinese Super League, with his form seeing him supplant Paraguayan Lucas Barrios.
Lekhwiya, however, present something of an unknown challenge to Muriqui and his teammates.
The Qatari side are coached by former PSV Eindhoven and Morocco coach Eric Gerets and will go into the game without having played a competitive match since May, when the Qatar Stars League season came to an end.
Lekhwiya finished in second place behind champions Al-Sadd.
"We do not know a lot about Lekhwiya, but I am sure that they are a great team as every team who has reached this stage have good players," said Muriqui. "Every game in the knockout stage will be great and I am looking forward to competing to become the winner of the AFC Champions League this year.
"Our squad has not changed very much and this is better for us as it allows the players time to implement the coaches' tactical arrangements to ensure the players achieve their best in the AFC Champions League.
"And this is something we have proven both in the AFC Champions League as well as in the Chinese Super League."