ACL preview: Sydney FC v Guangzhou Evergrande

The cashed-up Chinese Super League powerhouse arrived in style on Sunday fresh from a 2-0 win on the weekend. Asian football expert @JohnnyDuerden has the inside word on Sydney FC’s powerful opponents on Wednesday night.

Guangzhou Evergrande need no introduction to Australian fans.

Four titanic clashes against Western Sydney Wanderers in the past couple of years ensures they are a familiar name.

The return to Sydney will not be a welcome one and officials at the club bristle when it is suggested that they struggle against Australian opposition. 

There is a determination to put that idea to bed as well as the fact that the opening game at home last week was a 0-0 draw against Pohang Steelers.

Guangzhou Evergrande will face Sydney FC in the Group Stage of the Asian Champions League.

The formation used then was 4-2-3-1 and again on Saturday’s comfortable 2-0 win over Jiangsu Suning in the Super Cup.

What is often overlooked amid headlines of big name signings is that this is a settled side that has evolved over the years.

The likes of  Zhang Linpeng and Kim Young-gwon and Zheng Zhi have played together for years and form a solid foundation to the team and under Luiz Felipe Scolari.

Guangzhou have become more pragmatic under the Brazilian and are happy defend when necessary, it is just that other teams tend to sit back when confronted with the five-time Chinese champions.

Scolari got the job last year to bring a ‘more Brazilian’ flavour to the club.

There were concerns at some defensive frailties under Fabio Cannavaro, with that in mind the 2002 World Cup winner has worked to eradicate those as much as possible – more than before, the Southern Chinese Tigers defend from the front.

The team is not averse to spoiling tactics when under the cosh, a little tug here and there inside your own half to stop attacks before they start, a little time-wasting when ahead.

Luiz Felipe Scolari

Nothing too out of the ordinary but more pronounced since Scolari arrived.

Under Cannavaro and Lippi, the Reds played out from the deep more often than not with Kim, regarded as one of, if not the, best centre-back in Asia, bringing the ball forward for either Zheng or the two full-backs Zhang and Li Xuepeng.

This still happens under Scolari but there is a greater willingness to get the ball forward quickly too.

Zheng Zhi and Paulinho provide a solid base in midfield. Zheng is Scolari’s lieutenant on the field and organises the team and has developed into a highly intelligent leader.

Paulinho offers more drive going forward and the former Tottenham star has impressed since moving to China last year.

Most of the time at home when the original Chinese Super League big-spenders are in action against weaker opposition, Guangzhou attacks and does so aggressively.

Ricardo Goulart is the fulcrum going forward, coming deep or going wide, looking to create chances while getting into the box to score himself and he managed two against Jiangsu and his movement caused all sorts of problems.

How he links with new $65 million marksman Jackson Martinez will be crucial.

Ricardo Goulart.

At the weekend, Scolari selected a strong line-up as he searches for fluency. The Brazilian blames the 2015 FIFA Club World Cup for eating into his pre-season.

Huang Bowen and Rong Hao came in to play either side of Goulart in attacking positions to replace Zheng Long and Yu Hanchao.

Huang was impressive and made both goals and with his experience in Asia, and goal threat from just outside of the area, may get the nod to start.

Guangzhou have not yet found their form and with just two pre-season games, will be rustier than most after a long-trip to Australia and this could play into Sydney’s hands.

There will be, however, plenty of Chinese support.

Guangzhou has a habit of giving free tickets to Chinese students and workers when they travel in Asia and there are expected to be several thousand ‘Reds’ cheering the champions on.

But plenty of home support will be demanded to help the battered and bruised Sky Blues get over the line after a hectic week where they played a Sydney derby, flew to Tokyo to face Urawa Reds, then flew home to play a Big Blue last Saturday. 

That’s some schedule and with the travel as well as injuries taking a toll, Arnie’s men will need a lift from the Cove and Co. 

Watch out for

Jackson Martinez. An easy choice but with a big price tags come big expectations. 

The Colombian striker failed to make a mark in his debut against Pohang and Scolari has been defending his big signing in the Chinese media.

It will be interesting to see his relationship with second striker Ricardo Goulart develops. The Brazilian linked up well last season with Elkeson but there was a lack of chemistry with Martinez last week.

There are also those runs from the right-back position from Zhang Linpeng.

The versatile defender has levels of stamina that are rarely seen, and whether it is at the 90-second or 90-minute mark, he keeps going forward.

Strengths and weaknesses

There are multiple threats in a team that tends to attack aggressively from the start. If Martinez doesn’t get you then Goulart just might.

It could be a free-kick from Paulinho or a long-range special from Huang Bowen. There is a resilience to Guangzhou, too. This is a team full of experienced players who have won things in Asia.

There are defensive weaknesses and centre-back Feng Xiaoting makes his fair share of mistakes.

Zheng Zhi is the fulcrum but as he is approaching 36, he is slowing down and can be pressured.

And as Guangzhou are not used to being attacked, it can be the best tactic.