GUANGZHOU, China (AP) — Marcello Lippi and his Guangzhou Evergrande squad are potentially just 90 minutes away from making history as they host FC Seoul in the return leg of the 2013 Asian Champions League final.
Guangzhou is bidding to become the first Chinese team to win the continental title since 1990, while Lippi is aiming to become the first coach to win the Asian and European titles. The Italian World Cup-winning coach guided Juventus to the UEFA Champions League title in 1996.
The first leg of the Asian final ended 2-2 at the Korean capital last month, making Evergrande the favorite on home soil. Lippi said he gave the Asian Champions League "a lot of importance." "I won the UEFA Champions League and this would be at an equal level," said Lippi, who was appointed by the big-spending Chinese team in May 2012 with the objective of bringing continental recognition to the club. "Not only are we talking about the tournament, but also because I've been with this team for two years now and I've seen them psychologically and physically grow, and the team is much more organized."
The signs are good as Guangzhou's two goals in Seoul in the first leg took the team's goalscoring tally in seven knockout games to 21. A late equalizer from Dejan Damjanovic, Seoul's Montenegrin international striker, salvaged a draw for the hosts in game one but the two away goals could be crucial for Guangzhou, which clinched its third successive domestic title in October.
"It is an advantage, but we still have to play the second match," said Lippi, who took Italy to the 2006 World Cup. "It's not that I'm satisfied or not, but it's a good result to go into the final game with. There's another game and that will determine the result."
There are other advantages for Guangzhou. Not least the fact that this is the biggest spending club in Asian football with Lippi and three talented South American imports in Argentine playmaker Dario Conca and Brazilian stars Elkeson and Muriqui.
Of the 16 goals the team has scored in the last five games in the continental tournament, 15 have come from this foreign trio. "In my opinion, the first match is used to get to know the opponent in detail and then the second match you plan out the whole match in order to win it," said Conca, who was reportedly among the highest-paid players in the world when he signed for Guangzhou in July 2011.
More than 55,000 fans are expected to pack the Tianhe Stadium in southern China and, with some analysts tipping the highest broadcasting audience for a sports event in the country this year, it is not only the city of Guangzhou that is excited.
"It's going to be amazing to be at home because this is our place, we know the field and we have our fans to support us, and this is our stadium and it's going to be something positive for us," added Conca who lost the final of the 2008 Copa Libertadores, the South American continental club championship, when playing for Fluminese.
Conca will return to Brazil at the end of the year, though he hopes to play for Guangzhou in December's FIFA Club World Cup. Lippi and Evergrande have been fully focused on the final since the team clinched a third successive Chinese league title last month with six games to spare. The entire regular starting lineup was rested for an Oct. 30 Chinese Super League game at Shanghai East Asia.
In contrast, Seoul has been busy with the title race in the K-League. A recent run of games against championship rivals at home has seen a tired-looking team drop down into fourth spot in the K-League but Seoul is still fighting to qualify for the 2014 Asian Champions League.
And Seoul isn't likely to capitulate as it seeks a first individual Champions League triumph and an eleventh continental championship in total for South Korea, by far the most successful nation in Asian club football. South Korean clubs have won three of the last four Asian titles.
Seoul star Damjanovic, who has scored four of his six goals in this year's tournament in the last five games, has warned the Chinese club that the final series is far from over. In the first leg "We fought very hard; this is the Korean style of football," he said. "The K-League is a really tough league and when you play every game you feel this.
"We are going there and we will not give up. It is going to be another unbelievable game."