AFC Champions League tie poses a new threat to Australian champions.
The Central Coast Mariners can extend their fairytale season and send tremors through the AFC Champions League when they host Marcello Lippi’s Guangzhou Evergrande in the last 16 this week.
The recently crowned A-League champions scrambled into the knock-out stages for the first time – despite being hammered 3-0 in their final group game – to earn a testing match-up with the Chinese double winners.
Graham Arnold’s Mariners can now put a dent in the ambitions of the team led by Lippi, who masterminded Italy’s 2006 World Cup win, in the first leg in Gosford on Wednesday. The return fixture is next week.
“We’re expecting a very hard game against the powerhouse of Asian football,” Mariners captain John Hutchinson said in a press release.
“They are a massive club with unbelievable players and a great manager, so we know it’s going to be a tough game.
“But we at the Mariners always try to fight hard for ourselves as a team, and hopefully we can come away with a positive result.”
Just seven points in six games were enough for Central Coast to progress from a tight Group H, while Evergrande amassed 11 points in Group F to canter into the round of 16 for the second year running.
Lippi’s team, headed by forwards Muriqui and Lucas Barrios, with Argentine creator Dario Conca and captain Zheng Zhi in midfield, scored 14 times in the group games as they seek to become China’s first Asian champions in 23 years.
And the draw has opened invitingly for the unofficial title favourites, with South Korea’s Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors the only previous winners of the 10-year-old competition in the last 16.
Jeonbuk, winners in 2006 and runners-up to Al Sadd two years ago, finished second behind Guangzhou in Group F and line up against Japan’s Kashiwa Reysol in Jeonju on Wednesday.
“We expect to reach the quarter-finals,” their Brazilian coach Fabio Lefundes said. “As the first match is at home, we will adopt an aggressive strategy to win and also so that we do not concede any away goals.”
Buriram United, the first Thai team to reach the knock-outs, go into their home-and-away clash against Uzbek giants Bunyodkor with a new coach, former Leicester City technical director Scott Cooper.
Cooper’s predecessor Atthaphol Puspakom was unceremoniously sacked in the hours after Buriram sealed their historic berth with a nerve-jangling 2-2 draw against Korean champions FC Seoul.
The coach, quickly installed at Bangkok Glass, told local media that he was fired after the game because he ignored an order from the club’s leadership to make a substitution.
In Tuesday’s other games, FC Seoul travel to Beijing Guoan, and Qatar’s Al Gharafa and El Jaish respectively host Saudi sides Al Shabab and Al Ahli, who were runners-up last year.
On Wednesday, apart from Central Coast against Guangzhou and Jeonbuk versus Kashiwa, Al Shabab Al Arabi welcome Iran’s Esteghlal to Dubai and Al Hilal of Saudi Arabia have a home tie with Qatar’s Lekhwiya in Riyadh.