ACL Preview: Guangzhou Evergrande v Melbourne Victory
Past five matches (including pre-season):
Victory are getting a tough one out the way early here, with a trip to play the competition's holders. They're getting them at the right time too, with the Chinese Super League season yet to start up for 2014. Evergrande haven't been in great form during pre-season and lost 1-0 to Guizhou Renhe in the curtain-raising Super Cup on February 16. Victory meanwhile have started winning again at just the right time, but have been far from convincing. They beat Central Coast easily enough in Gosford earlier this month, but had to fight hard and needed an element of good fortune to get past Muangthong United in a playoff to reach the ACL group stage. And on Saturday they shipped three goals en route to a thrilling 4-3 win over Adelaide. Defend like that in this tournament and their participation will be brief.
The big issue:
Evergrande – Has coach Marcelo Lippi found a suitable replacement for departed star Dario Conca? The Argentine attacking midfielder returned to South America to join Fluminense at the end of last season, with 17-cap Italy international Alessandro Diamanti, a former West Ham and Bologna player, taking his place. Dangerous Brazilian Elkeson scored a hatful of goals last season during Evergrande's dual CSL and ACL success, and will be one of many to watch for Victory.
Victory – Kevin Muscat's men have the advantage of being in peak physical condition and must capitalise on that edge, by moving the ball quickly, pressing aggressively and working hard when not in possession. They are capable of scoring goals against any opponent, although the absence of Tom Rogic through injury makes it doubly frustrating that they are without Guilherme Finkler, who was not selected as one of three overseas players in the squad. The leaky backline is a major concern.
The game breaker:
Pablo Contreras - The experienced Chilean was brought to Victory on marquee wages and with a wealth of experience playing in elite international and club competition. He has mostly flattered to deceive throughout his brief career in Australian football, but now is the time for the 35-year-old to shine. With Adrian Leijer suspended and Nick Ansell and Scott Galloway inexperienced on the big stage, Contreras and flying fullback Adama Traore must take the lead in tightening up at the back for the Victory.
Prediction: Evergrande 1-1 Victory
We fancy Victory to make the most of their temporary advantage in terms of match fitness by nabbing a draw away to the holders. It won't get any easier here on in, but bringing back a point from China would at least set them up to go on and finally make an impact on the competition at the fourth attempt.