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November 21, 2015

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China looks for Evergrande boost

ZHENG Zhi will try to put his World Cup woes behind him and restore pride for China when he leads Guangzhou Evergrande into today’s AFC Champions League final against al-Ahli.

Zheng and China’s hopes of reaching Russia 2018 were dealt a blow by Tuesday’s 0-0 draw with China’s Hong Kong, which left it third in its qualifying group with two games left.

Skipper Zheng was among eight Evergrande players in China’s squad but the inspirational midfielder has a chance to make amends by lifting the Asian club title for the second time in three years.

Zheng can also boost his chances of being crowned Asian player of the year for the second time, with al-Ahli sharpshooter Ahmed Khalil also shortlisted for next week’s Asian Football Confederation awards.

Big-spending Evergrande, unbeaten since Brazilian World Cup-winner Luiz Felipe Scolari arrived in June, is the favorite and sealed its fifth straight domestic title last month.

Evergrande and UAE’s al-Ahli fought to a 0-0 draw in the first leg in Dubai two weeks ago but a packed and noisy Tianhe Stadium will offer significant home advantage. “All my teammates are still confident that we will win the game in Guangzhou,” said Zheng, a former Celtic and Charlton Athletic player.

“The key thing is we still have the decisive game at our own stadium in order to win the tournament, and we will need to prepare very seriously.

“There is no advantage for either team in terms of scoreline, so we have to prepare well to get the championship once again.”

Zheng’s teammate Gao Lin believes that a victory for Evergrande would be a boost not only for the club but for the country. “The Chinese fans need a team like Guangzhou Evergrande to win the AFC Champions League title,” said the China striker.

“We all know that Chinese football is slowly developing, but victory in this game will give it a big push. This way we can build confidence in the Chinese players as well as fans in China, and they will not lose any hope in Chinese football.”

Failing to qualify for Russia would be a blow for China which has previously contested only one World Cup, in 2002, but has ambitions of hosting the tournament and even winning it.

Evergrande can restore some of the swagger but it will be wary of al-Ahli, which is in the knockout rounds for the first time but eliminated highly fancied al-Hilal of Saudi Arabia in the semifinals.

A win or a score-draw today would see the Red Knights become the first west Asian side since al-Sadd in 2011 to win the competition.

Chief among Evergrande’s worries will be Khalil, 24, who helped UAE finish third at this year’s Asian Cup and has 10 goals so far in the ongoing World Cup qualifiers.

Prolific Evergrande striker Ricardo Goulart is an injury doubt after suffering an ankle problem in the first leg, but South Korean defender Kim Young-gwon is available after a one-match suspension.

Al-Ahli will miss defender Abdulaziz Haikal after his late red card in the first leg.

The winner of the competition will qualify for the FIFA Club World Cup, which takes place in Japan next month.


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