Warning shots don’t come any bigger than those delivered Guangzhou Evergrande and Al Hilal this week.
Guangzhou Evergrande went first, brushing aside Kashiwa Reysol 3-1 in Japan. Al Hilal followed it up hours later by putting four past Lekhwiya in an equally emphatic 4-1 victory.
The warning was clear – it’ll take something special to knock either side off and prevent a heavyweight showdown between two of the biggest clubs in Asia in the AFC Champions League final.
Looking for their second continental title in three years, Guangzhou scored all three goals from set pieces, albeit the first was an own goal, highlighting how well drilled the side is. While it wasn’t their slickest performance, the fact they still controlled the game while barely getting out of second gear and won 3-1 is an indication of their strength.
Any team that can afford to leave out Brazilian superstar Robinho from their squad is one with serious talent. Elkeson, with 14 ACL goals since 2013, is still to return from injury too, meaning there is still room for improvement in this Guangzhou side. That’s a scary prospect for Kashiwa, still scarred from the 8-1 mauling they received at the hands of Guangzhou in the 2013 semi final, as they face the daunting task of trying to overcome a 3-1 deficit at the Tianhe Stadium in just over a fortnight’s time.
While Robinho sat in the stands, it was the Chinese side’s other high-profile Brazilian recruit, Paulinho, who created all the headlines out of the game, with a stunning free kick from all of 40m that left Takanori Sugeno rooted to the spot as the ball swerved and dipped into the top corner. Replayed around the world, it went some way to repaying their $15m investment in the 27-year-old.
Continental success is highly coveted by the four-time defending CSL champions, and while they’re domestic crown is under serious threat from the Sven-Goran Eriksson coached Shanghai SIPG, currently one point clear on top with six games remaining, a second AFC Champions League title would appease a fan base now accustomed to yearly silverware.
That mentality is the same almost 10,000km away in Riyadh.
Al Hilal doesn’t work on the premise that the winner of the AFC Champions League is the best club in Asia. In their view they own that mantle, and winning the AFC Champions League is purely confirmation of that fact. It’s not an honour, it’s their right.
Losing last year’s final to Western Sydney Wanderers stung, especially when they steamrolled the Australian sides in both legs, but failed to put the ball in the net. They won few fans with their carry on after the final whistle, but it demonstrated their mentality. Western Sydney, in their view, had taken something that was rightfully theirs and they weren’t happy.
This year is all about redemption, and as Lekhwiya found out on Tuesday night, look out any team that is standing in their way. Their last two games, both at home, have seen them hit the back of the net seven times, while conceding just once.
Most pleasingly for Giorgios Donis will be the form of his new all-Brazilian strikeforce of Carlos Eduardo and Ailton Almeida.
Carlos, formerly of OGC Nice and FC Porto, scored the winning goal in the Saudi Super Cup, held in London for the first time earlier this month, before scoring a brace against Lekhwiya.
Almeida, who signed from Russian Premier League side Terek Grozny, scored the opener against Lekhwiya, thanks in large part to howler from the their keeper, after opening his Al Hilal account in their 2-0 win over Al Wahda in the opening round of the Saudi Pro League.
With the controversial Nasser Al-Shamrani, second on the all-time ACL scorers list, free to return after his six-match ban for spitting, they boast an attack that is capable of causing damage to the stingiest of defences.
A match that pits Carlos, Almeida and Al-Shamrani against Elkeson, Ricardo Goulart and Paulinho is one that gets the juices flowing. It’s the heavyweight showdown the AFC Champions League deserves and right now, it looks like the one we’re going to get.