Zheng Zhi eyeing Guangzhou progress ahead of ACL Draw

Zheng Zhi eyeing Guangzhou progress ahead of ACL Draw

Guangzhou Evergrande captain Zheng Zhi has backed the Chinese Super League champions to build on last year’s encouraging maiden AFC Champions League quarter-final appearance ahead of Thursday’s 2013 Group Stage draw in Kuala Lumpur.

Guangzhou Evergrande’s Zheng Zhi

Continental debutants Guangzhou became the first Chinese side to reach the quarter-finals of the AFC Champions League since 2006, but Marcello Lippi’s side fell short of matching Shenzhen Jianlibao’s 2005 semi-final appearance after succumbing to two-time champions Al Ittihad in the last eight.

But with Guangzhou earning a second consecutive appearance in the AFC Champions League alongside fellow Chinese Super League sides Jiangsu Sainty, Beijing Guoan and Guizhou Renhe after winning the domestic double this year, Zheng is confident of an improved showing in 2013.

“Lippi was very disappointed that we didn’t make it as far as the semi-finals, but next year we will prepare according to the AFC Champions League schedule and we will give the competition more priority,” said Zheng, who made the final three-man shortlist for the 2012 AFC Player of the Year.

“We accomplished the goals we established at the beginning of this year because the main focus for us was the AFC Champions League since it was the first year that Guangzhou Evergrande had played in the competition.

“With the club winning the Chinese Super League title, doing the double and reaching the last eight of the AFC Champions League, it’s been a very good year for Guangzhou. It’s a pity we couldn’t go further in the AFC Champions League but the experience gained will be valuable for next year.”

Having won the Chinese Super League title for the first time last year, Guangzhou advanced from a group which contained four domestic champions from the previous season although they did need Dario Conca’s stoppage time penalty on the final Matchday against Thailand’s Buriram United to secure passage alongside Japan’s Kashiwa Reysol and eliminate Korea Republic’s Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors.

A solitary strike from Brazilian frontman Cleo was enough to secure a nervous victory over Japan’s FC Tokyo in the Round of 16 which earned Lippi’s side a mouthwatering meeting with Saudi Arabia’s Al Ittihad.

Guangzhou did take the lead in the first leg in Jeddah only for a pair of headers from Naif Hazazi to hand Al Ittihad a 4-2 advantage.

And despite Lucas Barrios and Conca erasing the defect in the first half of the second leg, a late strike from Fahad Mosaed Al Muwallad secured Al Ittihad a 5-4 aggregate victory to end Guangzhou’s campaign in the quarter-finals.

“What we experienced in the AFC Champions League was totally different from what we had faced in the domestic league, including the ability of the opposing teams and the level of the players,” added 32-year-old Zheng, who was in the Shandong Luneng side who lost to Al Ittihad in the 2005 quarter-finals.

“Also, we had to travel all the way to West Asia with the objective factors such as climate and referees that we had to take into consideration and need to gain experience from.

“It was the first year for the club to play in both the AFC Champions League and domestic league in parallel and what we have learned will prepare the team better for next year.”

With 2012 champions Ulsan Hyundai unable to defend the title they won last month after beating Saudi Arabia’s Al Ahli 3-0 in the final after only managing a fifth place finish in the K-League, domestic champions FC Seoul, Jeonbuk, Pohang Steelers and Suwon Samsung Bluewings will bid to continue Korea Republic’s strong recent AFC Champions League history.

Ulsan were the fourth K-League side in succession to reach the final, while Seongnam Ilhwa Chunma won the title in 2010 following Pohang’s triumph a year earlier after Jeonbuk had claimed the title in 2006 before losing to Qatar’s Al Sadd in the 2011 final.

After two Japanese sides – Kashiwa Reysol and FC Tokyo – only managed to reach the Round of 16 this year, recently crowned domestic champions Sanfrecce Hiroshima, Vegalta Sendai, 2007 AFC Champions League winners Urawa Reds and the yet to be determined Emperor’s Cup winners make up the J.League contingent for 2013.

A-League Premiers Central Coast Mariners are the sole side from Australia guaranteed a place in the Group Stage with Grand Final winners Brisbane Roar set to meet Thailand’s Buriram in the play-offs.

Thai champions Muangthong United will take their place in the draw in the East alongside 2012 semi-finalists Bunyodkor from Uzbekistan.

Uzbek League champions Pakhtakor, who are the only side to have played in every edition of the AFC Champions League, take their place in the West side of the draw after ending Bunyodkor’s four year domestic reign this year.

Beaten 2012 finalists Al Ahli again represent Saudi Arabia alongside domestic champions Al Shabab, Al Hilal and Al Ettifaq, while former finalists and reigning domestic champions Sepahan, Esteghlal and Tractor Sazi make up Iran’s representatives.

Domestic champions Lekhwiya, Al Gharafa, El Jaish and Al Rayyan will fly the flag for Qatar, while UAE Pro League duo Al Ain and Al Jazira complete the list of confirmed participants in the West with domestic rivals Al Nasr and Al Shabab Al Arabi joining Iran’s Sabaye Qom and Uzbekistan’s Lokomotiv in the play-offs for two places in the Group Stage.

World Sport Group

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