Kashiwa won't be easy for Guangzhou in AFC Champions League
Chinese club and Japanese rival have everything to play for in tonight's AFC clash
Guangzhou Evergrande stand just 180 minutes - spread over two clashes in the next eight days - from a maiden appearance in the final of the AFC Champions League, but for head coach Marcello Lippi, tonight's first leg with Kashiwa Reysol will be decisive.
"I'm happy to be in the semi-finals and I believe that we will see who is the best team after this 90 minutes," said the World Cup-winning soccer coach before putting his team through their final preparations at Hitachi Stadium in Chiba, less than an hour north of Tokyo.
Guangzhou are the first Chinese side to reach the last four of the continental club championship since Shenzhen Jianlibao fell at the same hurdle to Al Ain of the United Arab Emirates in 2005 and Lippi's expensively assembled side go in as favourites to advance.
But Reysol will be no pushover, despite indifferent form in the J.League this season - they are currently 10th in the standings - and with club captain and central midfielder Hidekazu Otani missing due to suspension.
Brazilian striker Cleo, who was part of the Guangzhou side that won the Chinese Super League in 2011 and 2012, is currently on loan at Reysol and should start against his old teammates, providing a sense of the familiar for two teams who also met in the group stages of the 2012 AFC Champions League.
"I feel there is a special connection with Kashiwa due to Cleo and I am looking forward to the game," said Lippi, who cut the forward from his squad for the quarter-finals of the AFC Champions League last season.
"All 11 of Kashiwa's starting players are very good, while they also have a strong squad, so we need to take care of every player."
In their meetings last season, the teams drew in Japan before Guangzhou secured a 3-1 win at Tianhe Stadium, but both clubs still advanced to the knockout phase as first and second in their group.
Kashiwa, like Guangzhou, are making their second appearance in the AFC Champions League and their record is impressive, with Nelsinho Baptista's team winning all four of their games away from home this season before securing a 2-2 draw in Saudi Arabia against Al Shabab last week that saw them advance to the semi-finals.
Unlike their previous meetings, however, this time there is much more at stake for both clubs, with the winner advancing to the two-legged final to face either FC Seoul from South Korea or Iran's Esteghlal in late October and early November.
Guangzhou are likely to be unchanged from last week's 4-1 demolition of Qatar's Lekhwiya in Doha, which secured their passage to the semi-finals with a 6-1 aggregate win and Lippi's team has the added advantage of not having played in the Chinese Super league at the weekend.
"I have studied lots of DVDs and looked at how Kashiwa play and they have a good balance to their side and they are very stable," said Lippi. "They have a strong away record, but I am not sure why, maybe this is due to luck."