Marcello Lippi’s Guangzhou Evergrande knocked Thai strugglers Muangthong United out of the AFC Champions League and moved to within a whisker of the round-of-16 with a 4-1 rout on Tuesday.
A quickfire brace from Brazilian forward Muriqui sent Guangzhou on their way at Muangthong’s Thunderdome Stadium as the Chinese champions stretched their Group F lead to four points with two games to go.
Unbeaten Guangzhou, seeking to become the 10-year-old tournament’s first Chinese winners, would have qualified for the knockout phase if Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors had beaten Urawa Red Diamonds. However, the game finished 2-2.
Japan’s Kashiwa Reysol also stood poised for next month’s home-and-away round-of-16, despite dropping their first points of Group H in a 0-0 draw with Suwon Bluewings.
In the same group, Chinese side Guizhou Renhe kept their hopes alive when they snatched two late goals to beat Australia’s Central Coast Mariners 2-1 and climb from bottom place to third.
Generously funded Guangzhou were never likely to be troubled by Muangthong, their 4-0 victims at home last week, and it was no surprise when Muriqui, fed diagonally by captain Zheng Zhi, stabbed the opener with the outside of his boot on 40 minutes.
Three minutes later, the Brazilian doubled Guangzhou’s advantage with a carbon-copy goal, only this time with the assist from Dario Conca and the ball curling into the same corner with the inside of his right boot.
Guangzhou were briefly troubled after halftime when a botched clearance rebounded into the path of Muangthong’s Sarawut Masuk, who steered home a leaping header to pull one back, but Zheng restored the two-goal cushion shortly afterwards, before defender Feng Xiaoting added gloss to the victory when a free-kick into the box was parried to his feet with four minutes to go.
Bottom team Muangthong now have no prospect of reaching the round-of-16, as one of the top two in the four-team group, while Guangzhou will expect to rubber-stamp their qualification in two weeks’ time against Japan’s Urawa.
Urawa, bidding to avenge last week’s 3-1 reverse to fellow former champions Jeonbuk, got off to a dream start in Jeonju when Daisuke Nasu and Tsukasa Umesaki put them two goals up after just seven minutes.
Jeonbuk gathered their composure, but they had a big slice of luck to thank for their first goal, six minutes after the break, when Brazilian midfielder Eninho saw his speculative cross sail over the goalkeeper and into the goal.
In the dying seconds, former Middlesbrough striker Lee Dong-gook laid off a knock-down in the box for Seo Sang-min, who side-footed the equalizer which kept Jeonbuk second in Group F behind Guangzhou.
“It was disappointing to lose a goal after 90 minutes, but we fought very well, creating many chances,” Urawa coach Mihailo Petrovic said. “By taking one point from the draw, I think we can get through the group round.”
In Guiyang, Mitchell Duke’s penalty put the Mariners in front just before halftime, but goals by Zlatan Muslimovic and Qu Bo in the 84th and 86th minutes grabbed three precious points for Guizhou and denied the Australians their first away win.
In later games, Nawaf al-Abid’s scrappy goal 11 minutes before the break gave Saudi Arabia’s Al-Hilal a revenge 1-0 success at Iran’s Esteghlal to blow Group D wide open.
Esteghlal, who won away to Al-Hilal last week, still top the group, but the four teams are separated by just three points now Qatar’s Al Rayyan beat Al Ain of the United Arab Emirates 2-1.
Qataris Lekhwiya maintained top spot in Group B with a 2-2 draw at second-placed Pakhtakor of Uzbekistan.
Saudi Arabia’s Ettifaq thumped Al Shabab Al Arabi of the United Arab Emirates 4-1 to keep their round-of-16 hopes alive as they closed to three points behind Pakhtakor.