SEOUL (AP) – Guangzhou Evergrande has spent lavishly in recent years on top Chinese players and expensive South American imports with the goal of becoming one of Asia's superpower football clubs.
With a third successive domestic title almost guaranteed, Evergrande is now aiming to become the first Chinese team to win the Asian Champions League title since the tournament was launched in 2003.
The Guangzhou club takes another step toward that goal when it meets Japan's Kashiwa Reysol in the first leg of their ACL semifinal showdown away on Wednesday.
''I'm extremely satisfied that we have managed to reach this goal,'' coach Marcello Lippi said. ''This is a club that wants to do well and to reach the maximum of its goals. We are first in the championship in China, so this has been a very good year.''
Evergrande is the first Chinese team in the ACL semifinals since Shenzhen Jianlibao made it that far in 2005.
Anything less than a title this year could be a disappointment for Asia's biggest-spending team, which is loaded with talent, including Dario Conca from Argentina and Brazilian stars Elkeson and Muriqui, the leading scorer in this year's tournament with nine goals.
Guangzhou topped its group in the first stage of the tournament before eliminating Australia's Central Coast Mariners 5-1 in the round of 16. Last week, Evergrande eliminated Lekhwiya in the quarterfinals, beating the Qatari side 4-1 in Doha after winning 2-0 at home.
Lippi, who led Italy to the 2006 World Cup title, is also on course to make history with a championship at Evergrande. He would become the first coach to win Champions League titles in both Europe and Asia, after leading Juventus to the European title in 1996.
Kashiwa, the Japanese champion in 2011, currently sits in the middle of the table in the J-League, but that could be a positive as the club can now focus all its energies on the Champions League.
The team's poor domestic form has caused some upheaval of late, with Brazilian coach Nelsinho resigning earlier this month, only to return a few days later.
Kashiwa's run in the tournament has been led by Cleo, the Brazilian star who arrived in Japan from Guangzhou on loan at the start of the season.
''The high point so far was the quarterfinal because we fought hard against Al Shabab in Saudi Arabia,'' said Cleo, referring to his team's 3-3 victory on away goals. ''Coming through that game means we're the first Japanese club since 2009 to reach the semifinal. We've giving everything to achieve these excellent results.''
Given the historical animosity and current political differences between China and Japan, a match between football clubs from the two nations can be a highly charged affair. Earlier this year, local media reported that around 11,000 security personnel were on duty in Guangzhou for the visit of J-League giant Urawa Reds.
There could be tension in the other semifinal between South Korea's FC Seoul and Iran's Esteghlal, as well. Both South Korea and Iran qualified for the 2014 World Cup but there was a heated exchange between the teams' coaches ahead of a final qualifier in June.
South Korea has an excellent record in Asian club football, with its teams winning three of the last four Champions League titles and 10 overall.
Seoul, which hosts Esteghlal in the first leg on Wednesday, has yet to win the title but has been in good form this season in domestic competition.
''What happened in World Cup qualification has no bearing on this game,'' Esteghlal's international midfielder Andranik Teymourian said. ''We respect South Korean teams and FC Seoul and know they have lots of Korea internationals. We will do everything we can to get a good result to take back home.''
Esteghlal, winner of the former Asian Club Championship in 1970 and 1991, is the sole surviving team in this year's competition from western Asia. The region has triumphed just once since 2005, though Iranian teams have twice made the finals.