SEOUL, South Korea — Guangzhou Evergrande coach Luiz Felipe Scolari is switching focus from his Chinese Super League title race with old rival Sven-Goran Eriksson to prepare for the team's upcoming match against Gamba Osaka in the first leg of the 2015 Asian Champions League semifinal on Wednesday.
The 2002 World Cup-winning coach took over at the Chinese powerhouse in June and with three games of the domestic season remaining, his team is two points above Eriksson's Shanghai SIPG. While the timing of the continental clash with the Japanese league champions could be better, the Asian competition is far from a distraction.
Guangzhou is going for a fifth consecutive Chinese title but is desperate to add a trophy to its 2013 Champions League victory and be able to represent the continent in December's FIFA Club World Cup. The owners of the club, a wealthy Chinese property development company, have spent over $130 million on players since 2010 in a bid to become Asia's premier club.
The Chinese team comfortably disposed of Japan's Kashiwa Reysol in the quarterfinals, but Scolari is aware that Gamba, the 2008 Asian champions, will be a tougher opponent and he sees the first leg in Guangzhou as crucial.
"We know that Wednesday's game is extremely important," Scolari told reporters after Guangzhou came back from two goals down on Saturday to beat lowly Guizhou Renhe in a Chinese league match thanks to a last-minute winner from Brazilian international Paulinho, who cost $20 million to sign from Tottenham Hotspur in the summer.
"We do not want to concede an away goal and have to fully concentrate in order to go to the second leg with an advantage," he added. "We know that Gamba is a strong team with a good coach. We are feeling great, however, and are in good form."
Guangzhou will be without former Real Madrid and AC Milan striker Robinho, who arrived in China in July and has not been registered for the Asian Champions League. But that still leaves Paulinho and fellow Brazil international Ricardo Goulart, the tournament's leading goal-scorer so far with eight goals, as well as Elkeson.
Gamba is unable to match the southern Chinese team in terms of star power, but has strong players of its own. Takashi Usami has scored 29 goals in his last 52 starts in the J-League. The 23 year-old former Bayern Munich player said his team is feeling confident after defeating Jeonbuk Motors of South Korea in the final seconds of their quarterfinal.
"The team is definitely in a good mood now, and we have continuously had matches where we play hard until the last minute and this has given us a lot of confidence to fight until the end," Usami said in comments posted on the Asian Football Confederation website.
Whoever wins will face either Al Hilal or Al Ahli in the final in November. Al Hilal lost to the Western Sydney Wanderers in the final of the 2014 Asian Champions League despite dominating for much of the 180 minutes, and the Saudi Arabian club is eager to go one better this time.
It must first defeat Al Ahli of the United Arab Emirates, led by former Al Hilal coach Cosmin Olaroiu.
"I know them, they know me. We have a special relationship, but the game is the game," Olaroiu said. "They have the pressure of the public and they have a lot of supporters."
"At this point in the competition nobody is superior to anybody. Whoever performs better in the match will qualify for the final."