Can Guangzhou win Champions League to lift depressed China football fans?
With their World Cup hopes in tatters thanks to Hong Kong, mainland supporters turn attention to Saturday showdown
As Guangzhou Evergrande play for their second Asian Champions League title in three years Saturday, the influx of money, big name stars and coaches to the Chinese Super League has done little to halt the continuing woes of China's national team.
Chinese fans are accustomed to World Cup disappointment, with their team qualifying just once in 2002. The last three attempts all ended with China failing to reach the final round of qualification, and after a goalless draw against Hong Kong on Tuesday, that dismal run is in danger of stretching to four.
Only the eight group winners in the second round of qualification for the 2018 World Cup in Russia are assured of progression to the final round, where they will be joined by the four best second-placed teams. Tuesday's draw means that China are no longer able to overtake Qatar for first place in its group and their only hope is for second – which still may not be enough.
“The Chinese fans need a team like Guangzhou Evergrande to win the AFC Champions League title,” said forward Gao Lin, who has been capped over 80 times for China, but missed the trip to Hong Kong.
“We all know that Chinese football is slowly developing, but victory in this game will give it a big push. This way we can build confidence in the Chinese players as well as fans in China; and they will not lose any hope in Chinese football.
“A lot of Chinese fans are supporting us to win on Saturday and we have a chance to reward that faith.”
Guangzhou provided eight of the 23 players that made up French coach Alain Perrin's China squad and they return for the second leg of the 2015 Asian Champions League final against United Arab Emirates title holder Al Ahli in front of over 50,000 fans at the Tianhe Stadium on Saturday.
If World Cup disappointment is familiar, continental club success is still relatively new via star-studded Guangzhou – led by 2002 World Cup winning coach Luiz Felipe Scolari – aiming to become only the second club to win the Asian Champions League more than once.
Guangzhou, who recently won a fifth successive Chinese Super League title, are the biggest spenders in Asia with more than US$150 million invested in players and coaches since 2010.
The club feature a high-profile Brazilian contingent, but while former Real Madrid and AC Milan marksman Robinho followed Scolari to China in July, he did not register for the Champions League.
The tournament's top scorer, Ricardo Goulart, was injured in the first leg and the US$15 million January signing is fighting to make the return match.
To add to Guangzhou's woes, under Asian Champions League rules, goals scored away from home count double. After Guangzhou failed to find the target in Dubai, they need to win the game outright to take the trophy if Al Ahli score Saturday.
Much could depend on Paulinho, who joined from English Premier League club Tottenham Hotspur in June for a fee of around US$15 million.
“I worked with Scolari with the national team. He gave me the opportunity to play at the World Cup and one week after he came to Guangzhou I signed my contract,” Paulinho said. “I was confident because I could work with him again. He has given me the opportunity to play in two finals, the first one in winning the Chinese league and the second in the Champions League.”
Al Ahli sent six of its players to the United Arab Emirates national team for World Cup qualification duty and they helped the Whites picked up two wins in five days to stay on target for a place in the final round of qualifiers.
Ahmed Khalil scored five goals in wins over East Timor and Malaysia, and the club's Romanian coach Cosmin Olaroiu is confident his team will improve after a disappointing performance in the first leg of the final.
“The positive thing is that we did not concede any goal. At least we have a point to start with in the second-leg final,” Olaroiu said. “Both teams have to face the pressure, and now we have a few days to find a better way to play the second game. Over the next few days we need to find the positive things from the first game and see who can handle the pressure better in the second match in China.”