And so it all comes down to this. East vs West. Guangzhou Evergrande vs Al Ahli. Will the Chinese giant win their second title in three years, or will the unfancied Al Ahli secure a slice of history by claiming their first?
Here are the five burning questions ahead of the first leg in Dubai this weekend.
1. Can Lima continue his scoring spree?
Cosmin Olaroiu knew his side needed a goal scorer after their disastrous Arabian Gulf League title defence last season, and their less than auspicious start to their Champions League campaign. An audacious bid for Shakhtar Donetsk star Luiz Adriano fell over at the last hurdle, but in former Benfica striker Lima they have found a man to fill the gaping void from last season.
And has there been a more impressive start from a foreigner in the UAE? 13 goals in 12 games - including a goal in every game he has played so far for the Red Knights. His goals in the knockout stages of the Champions League have propelled Al Ahli all the way to the final. Give him a sniff and he will make you pay. His combination with midfield maestro Everton Ribeiro is one Guangzhou will need to nullify if they are to lift the trophy.
2. What’s happened to the Guangzhou Evergrande attack?
If you’ve watched any of their matches this year you’ll know what I mean. They just don’t look as dangerous as they once did, especially in 2013 when they steamrolled their way to the title, and a quick look at the stats backs up that theory.
In their four Champions League campaigns so far, 2015 has been their lowest scoring year to date. They scored just nine goals in the group stage (eight of those in the first three matches) and to this point of the competition are going at just 1.5 goals per game. This compares with 1.7, 2.6 and 1.9 in 2014, 2013 and 2012 respectively. It’s not just in the Champions League either. Their 71 goals in the Chinese Super League this year is their lowest tally since 2012 and this year is also the first since 2012 one of their players hasn’t scored 20+ goals in the league.
Under Luis Felipe Scolari there can be no doubt they are more pragmatic and less gung-ho than they were under Marcello Lippi. The combination of Ricardo Goulart and Elkeson has really failed to fire and match that of Muriqui – the top scorer and ACL MVP in 2013 – and Elkeson, the two often looking out of sync in the final third. And while they are picking up results, the sign of a good side, do they have the firepower to go toe-to-toe with the strike force of Al Ahli?
3. Can Al Ahli handle the pressure?
A big criticism of Middle Eastern teams is their mental strength and ability to handle pressure, especially when things aren’t going their way. Al Hilal infamously imploded after last year’s final, with the burden of pressure and expectation pouring out in ugly scenes after the match.
In this year’s semi final it was Al Hilal applying that pressure on Al Ahli at the start of the second half in Dubai, and the Dubai side didn’t handle it at all well. Holding a 2-0 lead at half time and seemingly cruising to the final they crumbled under the relentless pressure from Al Hilal in the second half, conceding twice inside the first fifteen minutes to change the complexion of the match.
They got out of jail with a last minute winner, but how much have they learnt from that experience? When Guangzhou get on top and have their period of domination, can the Red Knights remain cool, calm and ride out the storm? Or will they crumble and hand the ascendency to Guangzhou?
4. The Brazilian Battle – who will win the midfield?
The midfield battle between two Brazilian internationals – Paulinho and Everton Ribeiro – will be pivotal in determining the winner of this match. After taking a few weeks to find his feet in Dubai, Everton Ribeiro has developed into one of the most dangerous midfielders, not only in the Arabian Gulf League, but also across Asia. His quick feet, vision and deft touch will cause headaches for any defence, and he has shown, with four goals in this ACL campaign and another four in the first five matches of the current AGL season, that he is capable of scoring as well as creating.
On the other side of the pitch is Guangzhou Evergrande’s Paulinho, a strong box-to-box midfielder, who compliments the tenacious Zheng Zhi in central midfield. All of Asia should be aware of his threat from the dead ball too after his goal of the year contender against Kashiwa Reysol. So much football these days is decided by who wins the midfield battle, and this one will be no different.
5. Who has home advantage?
When it comes to two-legged ties the common belief is that it’s better to play the first match away from home, get a good result and then finish the job at home in front of your own fans the second leg. But is that always the case?
Since in inception of the current AFC Champions League format in 2002/03 there have been eight finals decided using the two-leg format. On five of those occasions the team who has hosted the first leg has gone on to win the title. The only teams to buck that trend have been Guangzhou Evergrande (2013), Urawa Reds (2007) and Al Ittihad (2005). On all three of those occasions the opening leg matches ended in a draw, and only once has a side lost the first leg and gone on to win the title – in 2004 Al Ittihad, who hosted the first leg, lost 3-1 to Seongnam before winning 5-0 away from home in the second leg.
So history suggests Al Ahli has the advantage and they’ll take extra comfort from the fact they are unbeaten at home in their last 10 Champions League matches, while Guangzhou has only won three of their last 12 on the road, including five losses and four draws.comments