SINGAPORE: Just over a year after Brazil’s calamitous appearance at the World Cup, Luiz Felipe Scolari can prove he’s a winner once again when he leads Guangzhou Evergrande into the AFC Champions League finals on Saturday.
The ebullient Brazilian has proved an astute signing by the wealthy club, who are unbeaten since he took over from Fabio Cannavaro in June and clinched their fifth straight Chinese Super League title last week.
Now Guangzhou are strong favorites to beat UAE’s Al Ahli over two legs, starting on Saturday in Dubai, and claim their second AFC Champions League title in two years.
Victory by Guangzhou would underline the rise of Chinese football, once a corruption-ravaged laughing stock but now boasting Asia’s richest league and on the march at club level.
“This is the second time we have played in the final and everyone is more experienced both physically and mentally because we played before, so we have more confidence this time,” said Guangzhou captain Zheng Zhi.
“This is a different period with different coaches and a different style, but the only thing in common is that we have the confidence that we are capable of winning this championship like we did in 2013.
“The only major difference is that the team in 2013 was more attacking, and the current team is more stable.
“Scolari is a very passionate guy so he brought more passion to the team. Scolari has struck a very good balance between attack and defense.”
Guangzhou were helmed by World Cup-winner Marcello Lippi when they became the competition’s first Chinese winners in 2013, and they have gone for a coach of similar stock in Scolari, who lifted football’s biggest trophy with Brazil in 2002.
The mustachioed Scolari’s second stint with the Selecao ended in last year’s 7-1 mauling by Germany in the World Cup semifinals, and was followed by a brief and ill-fated stint at Gremio.
But Scolari has been back in the groove at Guangzhou, who are unbeaten in 21 games under his command and, while not the free-flowing goal machine of the Lippi days, are tactically far more solid.
In their way stand Al Ahli, who have made a surprise run to their first Champions League final and also had to weather a court challenge from their semi-final opponents Al Hilal.
The Saudi club appealed to the Court of Arbitration of Sport over the alleged ineligibility of ex-Liverpool winger Oussama Assaidi, hoping to reverse the semifinals result — but their case was rejected.
Al Ahli’s main threat comes from sharpshooter Ahmed Khalil, who bagged four goals for UAE at this year’s Asian Cup and is the Champions League’s joint top-scorer with six.
“I always aim to be amongst the best players or scorers in every competition,” Khalil told the Asian Football Confederation (AFC) website.
Al Ahli will host the first leg at Dubai’s Rashid Stadium on Saturday, with the return game in Guangzhou on November 21.