August 20, 2017 / 4:43 AM / 3 months ago

Soccer: Battleground Asia for China's heavy hitters

HONG KONG (Reuters) - Chinese Super League champions Guangzhou Evergrande and big spending Shanghai SIPG take their domestic rivalry onto the continental stage when managers Luiz Felipe Scolari and Andre Villas-Boas face off in the first leg of the Asian Champions League quarter-finals on Tuesday.

Football Soccer - Chinese Super League - SIPG v Changchun Yatai FC - Shanghai, China - 4/3/17 - SIPG's players celebrate victory after match. REUTERS/Aly Song

Both clubs have become dominant forces in Chinese football, with cash-rich SIPG spending heavily to supercharge their attempt to deny Guangzhou a record-extending seventh domestic title.

Guangzhou have won the CSL title in each of the last six seasons and been crowned Asian champions twice since 2013 and, despite their rivals spending heavily on Brazilian trio Oscar, Hulk and Elkeson, Scolari’s men hold the upper hand going into the first leg.

“We have done very well in our last two games,” Scolari said after a 3-0 win over Shanghai Shenhua on Saturday saw his side extend their lead over SIPG in the league to eight points.

”The players repaid my trust with an excellent performance. We are a team and working together for the championship.

”I can’t be sure about our line-up for next week’s Asian Champions League game, it will depend on the players’ situation at that moment.

“But after Paulinho’s departure and Huang Bowen’s injury our midfield faces challenges.”

Evergrande have been weakened by the sale of Brazilian Paulinho to Barcelona after the former Tottenham Hotspur man played a key role in an underperforming Guangzhou navigating their way through the earlier stages of the competition.

Guangzhou Evergrande's head coach Luiz Felipe Scolari attends a training session before their AFC Champions League 2016 Group H match against South Korea's Pohang Steelers, in Guangzhou, Guangdong Province, China, February 23, 2016. REUTERS/Stringer

The 29-year-old scored five times in eight games, including in the away goals win over Japanese champions Kashima Antlers in the round of 16.

“Paulinho’s a great player and was an important member of our team,” Guangzhou captain Zheng Zhi said.

”But every team has players come and go. Of course his departure will have some impact on us, but we believe his spot can be filled by lots of players in our team.

“We have won so many titles over the years and it was not because of one player, it was down to the achievements of the team. We all contributed to the team and I have no doubt our midfield players will help the team a lot.”

While Evergrande lead in the league, SIPG hold the upper hand in the Chinese FA Cup, with Villas-Boas’ team claiming a 2-1 win when the two teams met in the first leg of the semi-finals played last week.

But with their challenge for the league title ebbing away, the pressure is mounting on Villas-Boas to take SIPG into the semi-finals of the Asian Champions League for the first time in the club’s history.

“Next week’s match we will use different tactics,” Villas-Boas said after his side’s loss against Guizhou Zhicheng on Saturday. “Today we sent out our best team, but failed to achieve the ideal result.”

The winner of the Chinese duel will meet either Urawa Red Diamonds or Kawasaki Frontale, both from Japan, in the semi-finals.

In the west of the continent, Iran’s Persepolis meet Al Ahli from Saudi Arabia and last year’s beaten finalists, Al Ain of the United Arab Emirates, face off against Saudi Arabia’s Al Hilal.

Reporting by Michael Church; editing by Sudipto Ganguly

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