Key defender Zhang Linpeng returns to boost Guangzhou for Asian finale
Fullback shrugs off ankle injury for second leg of AFC Champions League showdown
National team fullback Zhang Linpeng will give Guangzhou Evergrande a major boost for the second leg of the AFC Champions League final on Saturday by returning to the Chinese Super League champions' defence.
Zhang missed Guangzhou's 5-0 win over Wuhan Zall in the Super League last Sunday due to a persistent injury to his left ankle but the 24-year-old will be available to start for Marcello Lippi's side when they face FC Seoul in the second leg of the final at Tianhe Stadium.
Guangzhou stand just 90 minutes from making history by becoming the first Chinese club to win the AFC Champions League since the competition was inaugurated in 2002, with a low-scoring draw enough to crown them China's first Asian champions in 23 years.
"It has been a long process for us to reach this stage," said Zhang of his club's progress to the final. "We have achieved this as a result of good teamwork and we will strive to do our best in the final.
"FC Seoul are a good team and we had problems in the first leg, especially in the second half as we were a bit loose in defence. We need to pay more attention in the second leg and strike back."
Zhang has missed just one game in this year's AFC Champions League, when he was suspended from the first leg of the meeting with Australia's Central Coast Mariners after he was sent off late in the 3-2 defeat against Japan's Urawa Reds, still Guangzhou's only defeat in this year's competition.
The defender is now in his third full season with Guangzhou and has steadily improved throughout his time on the club's books as Evergrande have gone on to dominate Chinese football.
He has been hailed in some quarters as the leading prospect in the Chinese game and his rise continues to impress with Zhang maturing under the tutelage of World Cup-winning coach Lippi.
"When I joined from the First Division I just wanted to keep my place in the team," said Zhang. "We have now won three Super League titles and we want to continue to have good results.
"When I was sent off in Japan it was a good and bad experience. I lost control of my emotions, but after this experience I have become more mature.
"Now I am not only a defender, I attack more as the coach wants us to attack more to support the team. We do a lot of work on this in training and he encourages me to make overlapping runs.
"Everyone can tell that the team has improved over the two years since Marcello Lippi was appointed as the coach and I have learned a lot. He encourages me a lot and all I want to do is my job. He has helped me a lot, especially because he supports me a lot. Lippi's will to win helps me a lot."
After a 2-2 draw in the first leg in Seoul two weeks ago, a win or a low scoring draw will secure the title for Guangzhou and make them China's first Asian champions since Liaoning claimed the Asian Club Championship title in 1990.
"For me, Saturday is just another match, I am not putting pressure on myself or the team," said Zhang.
"We will look to play our own game at our level. We want to win every match. Everyone works together to win. FC Seoul are a strong team and it will be tough but we will prepare our best to win the match."