In the latest of our pieces on the AFC Champions League quarter-finalists, we take a closer look at the campaign of Shandong Luneng.
Chinese side Shandong Luneng have been regulars in the AFC Champions League in recent times, qualifying for the competition in six of the last nine seasons.
However, Taishan Dui had never advanced past the group stage previously. That is until now… Here is how the Chinese Super League side booked their spot in the last eight of Asia’s premier club competition:
The Group Stage
Mano Menezes’s side were drawn in Group F alongside K-League Classic outfit, FC Seoul, Japanese hopefuls Sanfrecce Hiroshima and Thailand’s Buriram United.
Matchday 1 saw Luneng travel to the Hiroshima Athletic Stadium and they were put through their paces by their enthusiastic opponents. Nevertheless, the CSL side were able to claim a 2-1 come-from-behind win thanks to second-half goals from Yang Xu and Diego Tardelli Martins.
Luneng then made it two wins from two with a 3-0 home demolition of Buriram, but disaster struck on Matchday three, when they hosted Seoul.
After conceding the only goal of the first half in the 28th minute, Luneng were back in business when Jucilei brought them level on the hour mark. Three Seoul goals in just six manic minutes, almost immediately after their equaliser, stunned the home crowd and ultimately proved more then enough to take all three points, as the Korean side eased to a 4-1 win.
Two weeks later in the return fixture at the Seoul World Cup Stadium, Luneng made up for the disappointment of Matchday 3 with a credible 0-0 draw against the K-League Classic team, which was enough to confirm their status as the second best team in the group.
The Chinese side then secured their spot in the last 16 with a hard-fought 1-0 win over Hiroshima at the Jinan Olympic Sports Centre following Martins’ 10th-minute goal.
With qualification secured, Luneng then played out a goalless draw away to Buriram on Matchday 6. The result meant they finished on 11 points, two behind group winners Seoul but two ahead of Hiroshima in third place. Buriram brought up the rear with the one point to their name.
The last 16
Luneng were drawn against Australia’s Sydney FC in their first-ever knock-out match in the AFC Champions League, with the first leg to be played in China.
David Carney gave the Sydneysiders a crucial away goal when the visitors took the lead in the 15th minute. As he had done so many times before, Martins was once again the one responsible for Luneng’s resurgence and brought them level in the 56th minute, to set up a thrilling second leg.
The second leg at the Sydney Football Stadium certainly delivered on that promise and ended up being one of the best games of this season’s competition to date.
Brandon O’Neill gave Sydney an early advantage with a goal in the second minute, but 10 minutes later Luneng were back on even terms thanks to Walter Montillo’s away goal.
Rhyan Bert Grant put the Australians ahead once more shortly after the half-time break, and with time running out, it seemed as if that goal would be enough to send the hosts through.
There was more drama to come, though, and in the final minute of regulation time, second-half substitute Hao Junmin scored his side’s second goal of the night to send the boisterous away fans into wild celebrations, as Luneng won by virtue of their two away goals, with the scores tied at 3-3.
Despite their good results on the continent, Luneng are way off the pace in the CSL.
After 22 matches, they find themselves in 14th place on only 23 points, having laready lost 11 times.
As a result, their Brazilian boss, Menezes, was sacked at the start of June and was promptly replaced by renowned German trainer Felix Magath.
Magath is one of the most celebrated coaches in Bundesliga history, having previously taken charge of FC Bayern München, VfL Wolfsburg, SV Werder Bremen, and various others.
Looking ahead to the quarter-final
Luneng will once again take on FC Seoul in the last eight of the competition, a side they are familiar with, having faced them in the group stage.
On that occasion, Luneng were beaten at home and drew away, although it is uncertain how prevalent those results will prove to be, as both sides have changed managers since then.
The quarter-finals presents uncharted territory for Luneng and one can certainly argue that their season is already a success, despite their struggles domestically.
Advancing to the semi-finals would strengthen that argument.