FC Sydney travel to China to take on Shandong Luneng in the AFC Champions League round of 16 on Wednesday.
Few gave Sydney a chance of progressing from a group in which they were the only side to have not won the tournament. Not only did Sydney achieve that feat, they ended up winning Group H and so gained a pass into the knock-out stages of the tournament for the first time in their history.
While all three of their victories in the group stages were special in one way or another, the 2-1 triumph against Guangzhou Evergrande in front of their adoring Sky Blues fans was surely the moment Chris Arnold’s group starting believing that there was life after all in the group of death.
— Sydney FC (@SydneyFC) May 17, 2016
Having finished their A-League campaign on April 10 in seventh place, Sydney’s focus is now entirely on their Asian aspirations. Consequently, Arnold is confident that his side are well prepared for the encounter. He also revealed that he has identified Shandong’s defence as a possible area to exploit.
“They’ve had some defensive issues the last four or five games. They’ve been conceding quite a lot of goals, and I’ve seen enough to see where we can expose them hopefully,” Arnold said. “Against Guangzhou [Evergrande] we had our opportunities and didn’t take them, and against Urawa Reds.
“We will get limited opportunities on Wednesday night but we’ve got to make sure we take them.
“We’ve got a tough assignment ahead of us. When we come back to Australia we especially need to have a good result to make that second leg more dealable.”
Featuring in a game of this magnitude will be a foreign experience to many of the Sydney players. As such they will look to Milos Ninkovic, who is no stranger to continental knock-out fixtures, for guidance and direction on the night.
The talented Serbian playmaker has appeared in 41 European continental matches from his time with Dynamo Kyiv and Red Star Belgrade. He has emphasised the importance of an away goal on Wednesday.
“We have two games against Shandong, we need to score tomorrow if we want to go to the next round,” Ninkovic said.
“I will be happy if tomorrow finishes 1-1.”
Shandong’s route to the knock-out stages was not quite as spectacular as their opponent’s as they finished second in Group F after notching up three wins and two draws in six matches.
Domestically, Shandong are currently in a very poor run of form. After nine games in the Super League they lie third from bottom and have not won in four outings. Their most recent result was a painstaking 0-0 draw with bottom of the league Changchun Yatai on Saturday.
Shandong fans will be holding thumbs that star striker Diego Tardelli is fit and ready for kick-off. Rumours have been circulating that after three games in a short space of time the Brazilian is struggling with a hamstring injury. He is an integral part of their side, having scored three goals in Asia this year and one in the league.
Shandong and Sydney will go up against each other at the Jinan Olympic Sports Centre at 19:20 HKT on FOX Sports.