Guangzhou Evergrande aim to make Asian Champions League history
Evergrande are looking to become the first Chinese side to win the region's premier club competition since Liaoning's triumph in 1990
Under the unforgiving gaze of an expectant nation, history can be made by Guangzhou Evergrande over the next two weeks, but only if the Chinese Super League champions can succeed where Beijing Guoan and Jiangsu Sainty have fallen short and beat South Korea's FC Seoul in the final of the AFC Champions League.
Marcello Lippi and his team meet the reigning Korean champions in the first leg of the final at the imposing Seoul World Cup Stadium on Saturday night aiming to become the first Chinese side to be crowned continental kings since Liaoning won the Asian Club Championship in 1990.
To end China's 23-year run of Asian disappointment, though, Guangzhou will have to triumph where their domestic rivals have already failed this season and defeat an FC Seoul side who have lost just once in the 2013 edition of the AFC Champions League, against Japan's Vegalta Sendai in the group stage.
"Both teams have grown organisationally, physically and psychologically and we will each have a 50 per cent chance to win. May the best team win," said Lippi, who confirmed Zhang Linpeng and Zhao Xuri, originally viewed as injury doubts, would be available for selection for Saturday.
So far, FC Seoul have had the measure of Chinese clubs in the competition. Jiangsu lost twice in the group stages before Beijing were seen off by Choi Yong-soo's side by virtue of a 3-1 aggregate win that was secured at home after a 0-0 draw at the Workers' Stadium.
At all levels of the game, Chinese sides - in the national and club realm - have struggled historically against teams from South Korea. The national team only notched their first win against their South Korean counterparts at the East Asian Cup in Japan in March 2010 and club sides have rarely succeeded.
Guangzhou, with their bottomless pockets and high-profile signings, have started to change that, twice drawing with Jeonbuk Motors this season, having handed the same club a humiliating 5-1 thrashing the previous year.
The inferiority complex that previously gripped Chinese soccer is ebbing away, even if the travails of the national team continue to cause concern.
Guangzhou, built on a solid Chinese foundation with their stellar South American trio of Muriqui, Dario Conca and Elkeson providing the firepower, go into the game as favourites, having been on a blistering run of goal-scoring form that has seen them net 14 times in the past four AFC Champions League games.
Lippi is not expected to make any changes to his usual starting line-up and the performances of the Italian's team have earned the respect and admiration of the Guangzhou coach's opposite number.
"Compared to how they have played in the past, Chinese teams have become quite strong and their tactics, and their understanding of those tactics, have improved quite a lot," said Choi, who took over as FC Seoul coach in 2011.
"But the difference between Guangzhou and the others is the foreign players; Guangzhou's foreign players are very good. It's a final so it's not about one country against another. We need to win, winning is very important. Our players are more focused on this game compared to a normal game.
"Guangzhou is a good team and they have money but we have passion and that's also important and we will concentrate on the game tomorrow."
Korean clubs have won three of the past four AFC Champions League titles while China's barren spell has stretched for more than two decades.
The last Chinese club to reach the final of the continental club championship was Dalian Wanda, back in 1998, and their conquerors then were, perhaps not surprisingly, Korean side Pohang Steelers.
With that in mind, Lippi and his squad will be taking nothing for granted until the trophy is firmly in the hands of captain Zheng Zhi at Tianhe Stadium following the second leg on November 9.