KASHIWA, CHIBA PREF. – Kashiwa Reysol suffered a second-half meltdown to leave their Asian Champions League final dream hanging by a thread after a 4-1 home defeat to Marcello Lippi’s Guangzhou Evergrande in their semifinal first leg on Wednesday night.
Jorge Wagner handed Emperor’s Cup winners Reysol a 10th-minute lead at Hitachi Stadium, but away goals after the break from Muriqui, Elkeson and star Argentine playmaker Dario Conca made next Wednesday’s second leg practically a formality for the Chinese champions.
Reysol went into the match with hopes of becoming the first Japanese team since Gamba Osaka in 2008 to claim the continental title, but manager Nelsinho refused to throw in the title despite needing to score at least four goals against World Cup winner Lippi’s side next week.
“It will be difficult in the second leg but not impossible,” said Nelsinho. “I’ve seen teams come back from this kind of situation before.
“The first half went according to plan for us, defending well and hitting on the counterattack. But in the second half their movement and speed was much better, and we lost our rhythm. They are a very good team and they take their chances well.”
Lippi, who led Italy to the world title in 2006, acknowledged his team’s superiority on the night but refused to take his place in the final against South Korea’s FC Seoul or Esteghal of Iran for granted.
“We haven’t booked our ticket yet,” said the former Juventus boss. “I am 65 years old and I have been in management for 30 years, and in that time I have learned that you never know what is going to happen. Reysol are a good team, and we still have to play them again.
“We didn’t start well and conceded from a free kick, but then we hit the post and started playing with more confidence. In the second half we scored four goals, and that was a true reflection of what we can do. Reysol are a fast team, but we outplayed them.”
Cleo almost inadvertently gave Kashiwa a 2nd-minute lead when he got in the way of a Wagner shot that deflected just wide of the post, but the Brazilian pair combined to better effect for the opening goal. Wagner flighted a free kick into the Evergrande box, and Cleo’s jump was enough to distract goalkeeper Zeng Cheng as the ball sailed into the net.
Muriqui went agonizingly close to leveling the score when his shot hit the inside of the post and bounced off the goal line midway through the first half, before Zeng was forced to make a vital save with his feet from Junya Tanaka at the other end.
But the visitors returned after the interval with renewed attacking intent, and Muriqui gave them their reward in the 58th minute. Defender Naoya Kondo failed to deal with a cross into the Kashiwa box, and the ball fell perfectly for the Brazilian to stab past Takanori Sugeno.
Daisuke Suzuki saw a header cleared off the Evergrande line as Reysol looked to hit back, but within a minute the Chinese had turned the tie completely on its head. Conca picked up the ball outside the box, before slamming it past Sugeno with his left foot for Guangzhou’s second.
Elkeson made it three in the 82nd minute, flicking home a corner at the near post, before Muriqui completed the rout in injury time as he rounded Sugeno before slotting the ball into the empty net.
“The result is everything,” said Nelsinho. “I don’t want to make any excuses, but it’s a fact that the other teams in the semifinals from China, Korea and Iran have had a break while we have been playing in the J. League.”