This weekend will see the beginning of the end of this year’s AFC Champions League. Unlike it’s European counterpart, the AFC Champions League final is a two-legged affair. The first leg will be at Seoul World Cup Stadium this Saturday, with the second coming two weeks later at Tianhe Stadium in Guangzhou.
FC Seoul is the defending K League champions. A team built on a sturdy midfield and defense, and the attacking prowess and creativity of their foreign trio of Dejan Damjanovic, Mauricio Molina, and Sergio Escudero. Seoul also features two of Korea’s potential up-and-coming attacking talents in Go Yo-Han and Yoon Il-Rok. Seoul struggled mightily out of the gate this season, but went on a midseason run that saw them jumping up the table, and now they have a shot to defend their title. Recent form though suggests that a serious run may have to wait as the Champions League is clearly on their mind.
FC Seoul was founded in 1984, a year after the first professional football league was launched in Korea. It was founded however, with the rather strange name of Lucky-Goldstar Football Club (Goldstar is the translated name, the original name in Korean was 럭키금성, which would be transliterated as ‘Lucky Geumsung’ or Lucky-Goldstar [‘geum’ meaning ‘gold’ and ‘sung’ meaning ‘star’. Geumsung is also the Korean name for the planet Venus]). The name coming from the team’s owners, the Lucky-Goldstar Group (aka LG). The team was founded in the Chungcheong region (south of Seoul and Gyeonggi-do). Eventually the league invited teams to move to the capital to help ensure financial stability, and the now Lucky-Goldstar Hwangso Football Club, moved to Seoul Stadium in 1989. A few years later, Lucky-Goldstar Hwangso would be renamed the LG Cheetahs to more closely match their baseball cousins (LG Twins). In 1995, the league enacted their “decentralization” policy forcing all the clubs in Seoul out of the city limits. LG Cheetahs moved south to the city of Anyang, and became the Anyang LG Cheetahs. Finally, following the 2002 World Cup, the government desperately needed a tenant for the newly-built and now unused Seoul World Cup Stadium, and LG was allowed to move back, much to the annoyance of the residents of Anyang. The team was renamed once again, this time as FC Seoul (with the GS Group purchasing the club from LG).
Guangzhou Evergrande has been the team in China for the past few years. The club was initially founded back in 1954, but it didn’t turn professional until 1994. For the rest of the 90’s and early 2000’s, Evergrande (then known as Guangzhou GPC FC) was a fairly average team. In 1998 the team was relegated to the second division where they would stay until 2007 when they won the second division title. The team would be relegated again in 2009 when they were convicted of match fixing. The next season though everything would change. Evergrande Real Estate Group would purchase the club and put a massive amount of money into the club. Upon purchasing the club, Evergrande hired a Korean, Lee Jang-Soo, to coach the team. Lee had been the coach at various clubs in Korea (including FC Seoul) and China. Lee guided the team to the second division title that year, and promotion. The next season Lee would lead the team to their first Chinese Super League title and then the Chinese FA Super Cup. Lee then left the club to make way for the Italian, Marcello Lippi. Lippi needs little introduction. As a manager he has won virtually everything, at the club level with Juventus, and at the international level with Italy.
Lippi continued on the work started under Lee Jang-Soo, and Evergrande would win the Chinese Super League title in 2012 and then again in 2013. In the current edition, Evergrande stormed to the title, putting up Bayern Munich like numbers. 28 matches, 23 wins, 4 draws, 1 defeat, 72 goals scored, and just 17 conceded (there are still two matches to play). Similar to Seoul, Evergrande seem built on a solid midfield and defense, that includes one Kim Young-Gwon, and a trio of foreign attackers. They are the Brazilians Muriqui and Elkeson, and the Argentinian Dario Conca. Both Brazilians spent a few years in Brazil before moving to China. Muriqui has been at the club for a few years now, while Elkeson signed on last year. Conca has also been with the club for a few years, but almost left a couple times. Once after falling out with Lee Jang-Soo after being substituted in a match against Jeonbuk Motors. Conca complained after the match on Weibo (like Twitter) about Lee’s decision and was promptly banned for 90 matches (about 2-3 years). Conca’s ban was lifted when Lee left and Lippi came in. Conca wanted to leave China this past season, but Evergrande was unable to come to a transfer agreement with Conca’s former club Fluminese.
How did they get here?
Since both teams were league champions they automatically qualified to the group stage of the competition. FC Seoul landed in group E with Chinese side Jiangsu Sainty, Japanese side Vegalta Sendai, and Thai side Buriram United. The group wasn’t a stroll for Seoul, but they qualified comfortably in 1st place with 11 points. Buriram United was second with 7 points. Guangzhou Evergrande had a much tougher group, group F, that included Jeonbuk Motors, Urawa Red Diamonds, and Muang Thong United. The group was close fought, with Evergrande winning the group with 11 points. Right behind them though were Jeonbuk and Urawa with 10 each. Jeonbuk advanced on goal difference.
In the round of 16, Seoul was paired with Chinese side Beijing Guoan, while Evergrande faced Australian team Central Coast Mariners. Seoul advanced with a 3-1 aggregate win. The first leg in the Chinese capital finished scoreless, but Seoul won the return leg 3-1 behind goals from Adilson, Yoon Il-Rok, and Go Myeong-Jin. Seoul suffered a scare when former Sevilla striker Frederic Kanoute scored an early away goal. But the aforementioned 3 goals in the second half ensured Seoul’s progression. The game was also notable for a flurry of second yellow cards that saw three players sent off late in the game. Kanoute and Xinxin Zhang for Beijing, and Adilson for Seoul. Evergrande had a slightly more comfortable round as they notched two away goals in Australia (they won 2-1), and then sealed things up back in China with a 3-0 win.
So it was on to the quarterfinals where West and East Asia came together. Seoul matched up with Al Ahli (Saudi Arabia) and Evergrande got Qatar side Lekhwiya (who features one Nam Tae-Hee). Seoul had a tough time with Al Ahli. Seoul managed a 1-1 draw in Saudi Arabia, Dejan Damjanovic saw his early goal canceled out by a late one from Sultan Al Sawari. The away goal put Seoul narrowly in the lead for the return leg back in Korea. The return leg remained scoreless until the 90th minute when Damjanovic sealed things. Evergrande on the other hand cruised through their quarterfinal tie. They won 2-0 in China, and then romped to a 4-1 win in Qatar.
The semifinals awaited. Seoul would meet more Mid-East opposition in the form of Iranian side Esteghlal. For Evergrande, a little closer to home, as they got Japanese side Kashiwa Reysol (another Korean alert, Kim Chang-Soo). A good showing from Seoul in Korea got them halfway to the final. Goals from Dejan and Go Yo-Han either side of the interval gave them a 2-0 lead on aggregate. But could Seoul stand up to the intense pressure in Iran? 88,000 packed the Azadi Stadium in Tehran. It was Ha Dae-Sung who quieted the crowd with a first half goal to make it 3-0 on aggregate (plus a vital away goal). Could Esteghlal score four? The answer, no. But Esteghlal made a fight of it, scoring twice in the second half to make it 3-2 on aggregate before Kim Jin-Kyu converted a late penalty for Seoul, putting the game out of reach. If Seoul had to fight a bit once again, Evergrande had another stroll. Kashiwa started well, with Jorge Wagner scoring after just 10 minutes, but four second half goals (and away goals at that) from Evergrande effectively ended the contest. Evergrande didn’t take their foot off the pedal for the return leg and further pounded the Japanese side (possible nationalism at work here) 4-0 in Guangzhou.
With the first leg in Seoul, it will be vital for Seoul to get a result, and by that, I mean a win. If possible (duh moment coming up here) keeping Evergrande from getting an away goal would be good too. That will be quite difficult as Evergrande has scored in every match this AFC Champions League save one (against Jeonbuk). Seoul will certainly need Dejan to be firing on all cylinders, and hopefully will also get a good showing from Molina who seems to be blowing hot and cold this season. An extra spark from one of Yoon Il-Rok, Go Yo-Han, or Sergio Escudero would be helpful. Ideally Seoul would probably prefer a slower tempo and lower score.
Evergrande would probably be quite happy to get an up and down game going, that would seem to favor them. The Chinese side is also in fine form at the moment as it’s been almost two months since they last tasted defeat. That loss was a 1-0 loss to Tianjian Teda back on August 31. Since then the team has won 7 of 8, and have been scoring like it’s going out of style (26 goals).
For good and bad, Evergrande has already wrapped up the Chinese Super League title, so Lippi has had to keep his players on their toes. The stats seem to show that he’s managed to do this. Seoul on the other hand are in the middle of a fight for the K League title. Seoul are sitting 4th in the table as of now, 7 points off the pace set by leaders Ulsan (who Seoul will play right after the first leg). Will this result in one team gaining an upper hand? Seoul being in the mindset of fighting for titles, Evergrande being able to relax a bit with the domestic front already wrapped up. Time will tell I suppose.
Either way it should be a good final.
>Tavern owner intruding again: Jae had a great preview, so it could be anti-climatic to show this video summary of how FC Seoul got to the finals. While this video does show the quality goals scored in this campaign, AFC’s narrator sounds like one of those classic/campy 70’s Saturday matinee Kung-Fu movie voice-over. It’s either humorous or annoying, depending on your subjective ears.