Two-time AFC Champions League winners Guangzhou Evergrande advanced to the knockout stage of the competition on Tuesday night when they overcame a brave challenge by Suwon Samsung Bluewings.
The 2013 and 2015 winners went through as Group G runners-up after a thrilling 2-2 draw at the Tianhe Stadium in Guangzhou. Kawasaki Frontale topping the group courtesy of their away goal in China, even though have a vastly inferior overall goal difference.
China’s champions now head into the knockout stage looking for a third trophy in five years. But what did we learn from Tuesday’s match?
Guangzhou through, but how far can they go?
The six-time Chinese champions are through and will be eager for success, but can they realistically hope to repeat the successes of 2013 and 2015?
An uninspiring string of performances in the group stage, bar the two thrashings of group whipping boys Eastern, make that highly unlikely. Take out the results against the Hong Kong minnows and Guangzhou’s record is played four, drawn four with five goals for and against – hardly inspiring stuff.
Of course, Luiz Felipe Scolari’s side may have been saving their best for the knockout stages – we simply do not know. But should they come up against Kashima Antlers in the last 16 then it is hard to see Guangzhou progressing.
It’s all about Goulart
Make no bones about it. If it wasn’t for Ricardo Goulart Guangzhou would have gone out in the group stage for a second year running. The Brazilian was the fulcrum of most of their attacking play in the group stage and had a hand in so many of their goals – including his two strikes against Suwon.
Guangzhou are far from a one-man team, and have a wealth of attacking talent in Alan, Paulinho and Chinese striker Gao Lin, but if they were to lose Goulart through injury or if an opponent were to do a really good man-to-man job on him then Guangzhou would struggle.
Brave Suwon just fail at the last hurdle
When Kim Jung-woo turned outside the box and curled a ferocious shot in off the post with 11 minutes left, it looked like Guangzhou were in trouble. One more goal for the visitors would have dumped the Chinese side out of the competition. Sadly for Suwon, they failed to capitalise on their chance as Guangzhou managed to see out the remaining time without too much trouble.
It was refreshing, however, to see two full-strength sides really going for it given the group stages so far have been littered with games where teams have not really given it their all – I’m talking about you Australia!
Mei Fang in action against Kawasaki Frontale.
Mei Fang was a rock
The Guangzhou defence was stretched by Suwon on several occasions and looked particularly vulnerable to pullbacks after breaks down the flank, it was exactly this kind of move that led to Suwon’s opener. But one thing was constant at the back and that was Mei Fang.
The burly number three had an outstanding game for the Chinese side and pulled off a number of outstanding blocks and tackles as he thwarted Suwon time and again. Guangzhou will need more of the same from him in the knockout stages.
More decision controversy
Guangzhou’s second goal was a beauty. A lovely little dinked cross from Gao Lin and a fine leaping header from Goulart saw the ball flash past the Suwon keeper at the near post, but the replay showed that Goulart was clearly standing in an offside position when the cross came in. It was a close call, which is probably by the Korean’s failed to protest too much, but had VAR technology been in use it would have been chalked off and Suwon would now be through instead of Guangzhou. Scolari’s men should count themselves lucky that the officials didn’t catch this one.