Lee Yonghun | Chief Editor, Korea
Fans might like to deny that money is everything in football, but no one can deny it is very important. In actual fact, it does more good than harm for the game. It can bring you more talented players, which results in higher quality of games.
This was evidenced by Guangzhou Evergrande and FC Seoul, who were the two greatest teams in the AFC Champions League (ACL) this season. Evergrande have the biggest budget in Asia, while Seoul also has decent one in Korea. Both teams possess quality foreign players and boast of local players who are well established internationals for their respective countries.
After a 2-2 draw in Korea in the first leg, Evergrande really planned their return home leg well. Popular singers Joey Yung and Han Hong were invited to perform, fans were told to wear red shirts to the game - it seemed as if the whole of China were cheering for Marcelo Lippi's side. It reminded me of the atmosphere back in 2002 during the World Cup in Korea and Japan.
But their preparation for the match itself was better. Lippi was spot on to let Zheng Zhi play as a defensive midfielder, the captain dropping so deep that he was at times a third centre-back, helping to keep Seoul quiet.
At the same time, that decision enabled full-backs Sun Xiang and Zhang Linpeng to burst forward and contribute to the attack without compromising the defence. Midfield maestro Dario Conca ruled the game again, while his fellow foreign stars Muriqui and Elkeson combined to fashion the opening goal from the latter.
Tactically, Seoul was well beaten but their players worked really hard for the equaliser, scored by Dejan Damjanovic, and made Evergrande nervous in the end as the game finished 1-1.
Kim Young-Gwon, Evergrande's Korean international defender, explained after the game that Lippi always checks many things in order for the players to be in their best condition. That meticulousness played a big part in the club winning the Chinese Super League this year, as well as its first ACL title. Of course, Evergrande's generous investment in appointing the former World Cup-winning coach with Italy in 2012, as well as accomodating the 65-year-old's requirements, was crucial as well.
But Seoul were also very close to winning the ACL themselves. They were never beaten in both legs of the final and even though their opponents had a much bigger budget, the quality of Seoul's players were not that inferior. Ha Dae-Sung, Koh Myung-Jin, Go Yo-Han, Cha Du-Ri, Kim Jin-Kyu and Kim Yong-Dae have all been capped by Korea national team, while Damjanovic netted a goal in each of Montenegro's two 2014 World Cup qualifiers against England this year.
Seoul also had another good experience playing against top Korean sides. Due to the split system of the K-League, Seoul were up against strong teams every week. For example, Ulsan Hyudai won the ACL last season, while Suwon Samsung Bluewings, Jeonbuk Motors and Pohang Steelers have all won the competition before. As such, Seoul had no reason to fear Evergrande and could ostensibly play with confidence, especially at home.
In the end, Evergrande claimed the title on away goals. Lippi subsequently pointed out that his team showed great form during the whole tournament and deserved the title.
It is hard to disagree and I want to see them keep doing well to raise the bar. K-League clubs, including Seoul, will try even harder to take the title back in future. And all this will only serve to make Asian football more interesting as we move forward.