The quarter finals in the AFC Champions League kicked off yesterday with a west Asian a goalless draw between Al Ain (UAE) and Al Hilal SFC (Saudi Arabia) and today, the east Asian section gets rolling again. We have two national affairs to look forward to, more specifically a Chinese one between Shanghai SIPG and Guangzhou Evergrande, and a Japanese one between Kawasaki Frontale and Urawa Red Diamonds.
Shanghai SIPG – Guangzhou Evergrande
Starting with the clash of the CSL top two, Shanghai SIPG and Guangzhou Evergrande. SIPG fell out of the domestic title race by losing to Guizhou during the weekend, leaving Evergrande to jog the CSL home for the 7th consecutive season. Considering André Villas-Boas has promised his bosses silverware this year, it’s now down to the CFA Cup or ACL if he is to keep his word.
It will be the fourth out of a total of six matches between the two sides this year. It has been particularly even overall, with a draw and a home-win for Evergrande in the CSL, and a home-win for SIPG in the recent first leg of the CFA Cup semi-final in the previous three.
Neither side has been in fantastic form lately but looking at the state of things, Paulinho’s transfer from Evergrande to FC Barcelona (under worryingly suspicious circumstances) has left SIPG’s Hulk unchallenged as the best player in China (and Asia) but the Cantonese side is still works better as a unit. The re-signed Brazilian star Muriqui could be perceived as a replacement for Paulinho, but is more likely competing with his countryman Alan on the left wing.
Keeping the departure of Paulinho, along with the fact no away wins have been recorded in the previous three matches between the two clubs this year and that the SIPG manager is running out of ways to make good on his promise, in mind, SIPG should be considered favorites tonight. The ACL also gives André Villas-Boas the opportunity to play Odil Akhmedov without using up a foreign player spot, meaning he still has room for his Brazilian super-trio of Hulk, Oscar and Elkeson. Over two legs it’s incredibly difficult to predict the outcome, especially as we still don’t know how Evergrande will cope with losing their brightest shining star so late. Still, the foundation is strong and Muriqui recovers some of the excellence of Paulinho (the Barcelona signing scored two out of Evergrande’s three goals in the round of 16). With the league more or less wrapped up already, Luiz Felipe Scolari’s side will start thinking of the possibility of a third ACF Champions League-title and a nearly perfect season.
Kawasaki Frontale – Urawa Red Diamonds
Across the East China Sea (and a fair bit onwards) an even more local affair takes place on the eve of tomorrow. The famous Urawa Red Diamonds fans have about an hour on the train to make it to the other side of Tokyo and the first leg away to Kawasaki Frontale. Frontale are highly involved in the race for what would be their first ever title, while the Reds can focus all their energy towards repeating their 2007-feat of becoming Asian champions.
Both sides prefer to play at home, especially Urawa who are a very different outfit in front their “red wall”. Hence, Frontale will looking to secure a comfortable lead ahead of the return fixture and the Reds would be happy with a draw. The key to stopping the high scoring home-side (both teams score at will at home but not very much on the road) will lie in isolating veteran playmaker Kengo Nakamura and stop the ball from reaching top-scorer Yu Kobayashi. It all comes down to getting the result tomorrow night but based on gut-feeling, and the more varied arsenal of firepower (Koroki, Rafael Silva and Ljubijankic) I hold the Reds as favorites to come out on top over two legs. Despite Frontale winning 4-1 in the only previous match between the two sides this season.