By Peter Davis
The Asia Champions League is once again upon us. Guizhou Renhe and Jiangsu Sainty will experience their first ACL while Beijing Guoan enter their fifth campaign and the Marcelo Lippi-lead Guangzhou Evergrande are in only their second but remain firm favourites to go the furthest of the Chinese sides.
For this column I was joined by none other than a fan of each side to give their two cents on what could well be the most successful continental campaign in a long while for Chinese sides, or at least the potential champion!
Historically, Chinese teams have had some fantastic results in the ACL; Changchun Yatai beat Indonesian side Persipura Jayapura 9-0 in 2010 while Dalian Shide recorded a 7-1 2003 victory over Thai side Osotsapa F.C. Additionally, Shandong Luneng are one of only three sides to have won all six of their group games. But China has only experienced one continental victory, when Liaoning F.C. won the old Asian Club Championship in 1990.
|"Evergrande are able to get to at least the quarter finals or even further"
- Haai Shyluk, Guangzhou Evergrande supporter
Haai Shyluk, 20, has supported Guangzhou Evergrande since 2003 (then known as Canton F.C.) and is more than confident of his sides ACL chances. “Evergrande are able to get to at least the quarter finals or even further,” he told me. “It depends how our squad does but we have a lot of depth. We signed some players to improve our weaker positions.”
The CSL holders have added Elkeson from Botafoga whilst letting Cléo go to Group H challengers Kashiwa Reysol. They have also bagged several impressive domestic signings including the double-capture of China internationals Zhao Peng and Goalkeeper Zeng Cheng from relegated Henan Construction. Evergrande are up against Thai League winners Muangthong United, K-League runners-up Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors and third-placed J-League side Urawa Red Diamonds.
Other fans are less confident. Wang Le, 32, has supported Beijing Guoan since 1995. “Beijing Guoan will finish last in their group,” he explained bluntly, “Guangzhou Evergrande will do best.” Wang Le was not the only one to share this view, as Jiangsu Sainty fan Li Kai Yan, 29, simply stated: “Jiangsu will be there for the occasion, Evergrande will be there for the trophy.”
Wang Yun, 28, a Guizhou Renhe fan explained, “Renhe don’t have a great chance to be honest but we are new to the ACL. The experience they can get from ACL games is more important than the actual scores, because it can help the team to grow and develop. Guangzhou Evergrande will do best because they have excellent Chinese and foreign players.”
Jiangsu Sainty face the K-League champions F.C. Seoul in Group E as well as J-League runners-up Vegalta Sendai and Thai Cup winners Burinam United. Meanwhile, Beijing Guoan are in the dreaded ‘group of death’ with J-League winners Sanfrecce Hiroshima, Korean FA Cup winners Pohang Steelers and Uzbek Cup winners and League runners-up Bunyodkor. Guizhou Renhe also face a tough group with Central Coast Mariners, Emperors Cup winners Kashiwa Reysol and K-League fourth placed Suwon Bluewings.
|"The ACL gives us a chance to really compete and learn who we are on a bigger stage"
- Li Kai Yan, Jiangsu Sainty supporter
What do Chinese clubs have to gain from such a difficult tournament? “I think the level of Asian players is very close but at the moment the ACL is a bad thing for Chinese teams; there is a lot of development to be done’ says Wang Le. Renhe supporter Wang Yun argues that “The ACL is a very good opportunity and platform for Renhe to learn and grow.”
“The ACL gives us a chance to really compete and learn who we are on a bigger stage,” Jiangsu fan Li echoed.
The four Chinese sides have evolved to an extent over the pre-season, Evergrande bought big while Guizhou Renhe had to replace Dino Dulbic and Ruben Suarez with Zvjezdan Misimovic, Jonas Salley and Belgian-Taiwanese right back Xavier Chen. Sainty have bagged forward Hamdi Salihi from D.C. United and talented domestic players Yin Lu and Wu Xi, while losing Wang Yunlong to CSL newcomers Wuhan Zall.
After their third-place finish, Beijing Guoan added Brazilian Andre Lima and Uzbeki youngster Egor Krimets, who aren’t exactly confidence-inspiring signings. They’ve also brought on new manager Aleksandar Stanojevic, who impressed with Dalian Aerbin last season.
|"A small number of people can afford to go to ACL matches, but most believe it's a long way to go for one match"
- Wang Le, Beijing Guoan supporter
As other clubs send hundreds of supporters away, will Chinese supporters make the trip? “Travelling abroad costs much more than travelling to other cities in China but I see the ACL as more important than the CSL,” Evergrande fan Haai proposes. “Last year we had about 300 people travel from Canton to Korea, I would go myself.”
Wang Le is more concerned about the travel time. “A small number of people can afford to go to ACL games but I think most people think that it is a very long way to go just for one match,” he explains. “Japan and Korea are OK but some places are too expensive for young Guoan fans.”
The competing clubs aren’t the only ones with a stake in the tournament. In fact, sides like Dalian Aerbin and Shandong Luneng will be watching the ACL with great interest in the hopes that their rivals will be bogged down with busy schedules. Whatever the repercussions, the ACL is certainly exciting for Chinese fans and our attentions will be fixed on how the four sides perform against Asia’s finest.
Beijing-based Peter Davis watched Liaoning Whowin play Chengdu Blades in 2008 and has been hooked on Chinese football ever since. He is a regular contributor to Wild East Football and can be found on Twitter at @peteydavis