The inside word on the Mariners’ ACL opponent

Our Asian football expert John Duerden has the inside word on Central Coast Mariners’ opposition in Tuesday night’s do-or-die Asian Champions League qualifier in Gosford, Chinese outfit Guangzhou R&F.

There is an Italian restaurant in a five-star hotel a quick five minutes walk away from Guangzhou Evergrande’s Tianhe Stadium where Marcello Lippi and Sven Goran Eriksson used to dine and talk football as respective coaches of Evergrande and R&F.

The city, formerly known as Canton, has long been known for its food. These days, football is coming to the fore and there could be two clubs in the group stage of the AFC Champions League. 

First though, Guangzhou R&F has to overcome Central Coast Mariners in a final play-off on Tuesday.

It is a major hurdle as the club tries to step out of the considerable shadow cast by neighbour Evergrande, who won a fourth successive domestic title in November and a first continental crown in 2013.

Guangzhou R&F is one of those Chinese clubs that has moved around over the years – Shenyang, far to the north-east and Changsa in the middle. The final relocation to the Pearl River Delta came in 2011 following the involvement of R&F, like Evergrande, a company that made its money in real estate.

The owners are finding out, unlike when the Reds started spending, there is more competition these days. Even signing a big-name coach is not always what it is cracked up to be. 

Sven Goran Eriksson guided the team to a best-ever third place but left in November, tempted by the new big spenders on the CSL block Shanghai SIPG. Such is life in a league that’s becoming more cut-throat by the season.

It remains to be seen if Guangzhou has the squad for a two-fronted campaign. Equalling last season’s third place in the league would be satisfactory. Trying to finish top while participating in Asia would surely be beyond this team.

Unlike Evergrande, this is not a side full to bursting with Chinese internationals. Of the 23 at the AFC Asian Cup, only one, defender Zhang Jinpeng plays in the blue and white at home but there is talent. 

Jiang Ning, a tricky left-sided attacker was much improved last season. Goalkeeper Liu Dianzuo is a new signing and is a good stopper indeed if he can keep Chang Yuelei on the bench. And there is always the old captain warrior centre-back Zhang Yaokun, as reliable as they come.

His partner is usually Jang Hyun-soo, the South Korean who surprisingly started the 2015 AFC Asian Cup final against Australia as a defensive midfielder. At his best in defence, Jang shows signs of becoming an international class player though at the moment, these are just signs.

For the Mariners, there is good news in that Guangzhou’s two standouts from last season have fitness issues and may be absent.

Park Jung-woo is one of Asia’s toughest-tackling and hardest-working midfielders and the South Korean is maturing all the time. There are more concerns over Abderrazzak Hamdallah. The Moroccan marksman was brought in as successor to Yakubu Aiyegbeni and outscored the Nigerian with 22 goals in 21 games in 2014. His future at the club is uncertain however with some serious interest coming from West Asian clubs. It remains to be seen if the 24 year-old starts the season in China.

If he leaves, it will be another blow to fans after the departure of star Brazilian playmaker Davi, who followed Eriksson to Shanghai in January. Spanish club Getafe is trying to fill this big hole created by SIPG and has supplied new playmaker Miguel Herrero and new coach Cosmin Contra to Guangzhou. 

The Spanish midfielder impressed in the play-off win over the Warriors of Singapore last week. As far as the Romanian tactician goes, Central Coast is his first real test. But it is one that Guangzhou R&F will have to overcome if it is to have a chance to step out of that Evergrande shadow.