Cleo's goal in the 30th minute propelled high-flying Guangzhou Evergrande to a 1-0 win over FC Tokyo on Tuesday in the final match of the Asian Champions League's round of 16.
The victory was the first in Asian competition for new Evergrande coach Marcello Lippi, who took over the team last week. In front of 40,000 fans waving their trademark red scarves, the hosts pushed hard from the outset with their formidable foreigner trio of Conca, Cleo, and Muriqui.
But Tokyo made it clear that they would not lay down without a fight, as Yohei Kajiyama and Naohiro Ishikawa both featured repeatedly in probing attacks. A reshuffled back four that featured Japan international Hideto Takahashi at centre-back appeared capable at first of containing Evergrande, but at the half-hour mark it was Cho Won-Hee that slipped past his marker, received a chip-pass that could have been whistled offside and sent a cross to Cleo who easily converted.
A stunned Tokyo appeared unfocused heading into half-time, but kicked off the second half with more of their trademark passing possession. Ishikawa had several opportunities as time wound down, but failed to demonstrate any of the goal-producing magic that has made him a fan favourite. Meanwhile Muriqui continued to hound Tokyo's defenders, causing no shortage of trouble for defenders Masato Morishige and Yuhei Tokunaga.
With Lippi choosing three defensive replacements, Tokyo manager Ranko Popovic brought in a trio of attackers in Tatsuya Yazawa, Hiroki Kawano, and Yohei Hayashi. But these substitutes came in too late to be effective, as Evergrande were able to defend their goal despite being reduced to 10 men as a bizarre injury in additional time saw Won-Hee taken off in an ambulance.
The result sees the reigning CSL champions proceed to the ACL quarter-finals, where they are one of three clubs representing East Asia. Meanwhile Tokyo's elimination, combined with losses by Kashiwa Reysol and Nagoya Grampus to their Round of 16 opponents, ensures that no Japanese clubs will reach the last four for the second time since 2007.