ACL preview: Shandong Luneng v Sydney FC

Struggling in the Chinese Super League, Shandong Luneng are desperate to achieve success in the ACL after living in the shadow of Guangzhou Evergrande, writes Asian Football expert John Duerden.

It was fitting that Sydney FC’s flight to the Jinan home of Shandong Luneng for Wednesday’s first leg of the second round of the 2016 AFC Champions League went via the city of Guangzhou.

That 2-1 win over the defending champions in the first home game of the group stage did so much to help the Australians top the group and the Chinese titans to finish third and out.

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It was an achievement well-noted up in Shandong.

“We know that Australian teams are always strong and competitive but Sydney finished first in a tough group,” said Shandong coach Mano Menezes last week.

Graham Arnold embraces Shane Smeltz following Sydney FC's win over Pohang.

“We know that we have to be at our best in this game and we are looking forward to two exciting games. We want to do well in front of our own fans and we will be on the front foot.”

Shandong has more reason than most to lament the rise of Guangzhou. A look at the club’s fortunes over the past decade reveals a clear divide between the pre-Guangzhou era and the post.

The last five years have seen every Chinese Super League trophy won by the big-spending Southern China Tigers. The five years prior however had Shandong lifting the title three times. Until Evergrande bought the club and started investing big-time, the Jinan outfit was the dominant club in the Middle Kingdom.

Shandong’s record in the continental tournament is difficult reading for fans. A first appearance in 2005 saw a creditable quarterfinal finish but since then six appearances have all ended at the group stage.

If there is one positive from all that, it was the lack of pressure on Shandong’s shoulders heading into this year’s tournament. Guangzhou and Shanghai SIPG have been the bigger spenders and took the top two spots in the league. Shandong creditably hung around until late in the title race but in the end it was a two-horse affair.

And with Jiangsu Suning, who qualified for Asia through winning the FA Cup, then splashing over $100 million on the likes of Alex Teixeira, Ramires and Jo, there was even less attention on Shandong even with the news that former Brazil boss Mano Menezes had taken over.

It started well in Asia with a fine win at Adelaide United in the final play-off. The opening game, an impressive 2-1 win at the home of Japanese champions Sanfrecce Hiroshima was followed by a 3-0 victory over Thai champs Buriram United.

Shandong's Yang Xu celebrates the opening goal against Adelaide.

With the struggles of Guangzhou, suddenly there were questions being asked about whether Shandong could actually do something this time. As soon as the spotlight started to shine, there was a 4-1 loss at home FC Seoul. Same old Shandong, it seemed, but in the end, the Chinese team took second.

In Asia, the defence has been decent. Apart from that four goal Seoul haul, the team has conceded just once though Menezes is prepared to be more conservative in Asia than in the super league. A narrow advantage over Sydney in the first leg will be satisfactory.

In the league, Shandong is struggling, badly. Only goal difference is keeping the team out of the relegation zone and it may well be that only Asia is keeping Menezes from the sack. For the Brazilian, this is a huge game.

Attacking stars of last season, Diego Tardelli and Aloisi have failed to get going this time around but the service from the likes of Hao Junmin, formerly of Schalke and Argentina’s Walter Montillo has not been of the same standard.

Reds winger Craig Goodwin challenges for the ball with Shandong star Diego Tardelli.

Goalkeeper Wang Dalei has not been as consistent as last season either and the team has been shipping goals domestically. Fans are growing restless and there are rumours that team spirit is not all it could be.

But a knockout game in the AFC Champions League should help all to forget domestic worries in the search for continental glory. Guangzhou has taken Shandong’s place at the top of Chinese football but if the men in orange can eliminate the team that helped to knockout Guangzhou then a season that is threatening to come apart at the seams has the potential to be the best for years.