Gosford: Guangzhou Evergrande fought back after going a goal behind to secure a 2-1 win over Central Coast Mariners in the first leg of their AFC Champions League Round of 16 encounter at Central Coast Stadium on Wednesday.
Lucas Barrios and Muriqui (Luiz Guilherme da Conceição Silva)) scored for the Chinese Super League champions after Mitchell Duke had given Graham Arnold’s side the lead in the seventh minute to ensure Guangzhou return to Tianhe Stadium for the second leg next week in a confident frame of mind.
“We expected a difficult match and we got one,” said Guangzhou coach Marcello Lippi. “Today our opponents had a very strong desire to win and they used their physical advantage to push us a lot. They had an early goal, but we gradually gained back control over the game and, especially in the second half, we did extremely well.
“We had two goals but, actually, we had chances to do even more, both Barrios and Muiriqui wasted wonderful opportunities. I hope we can finish the round with a good result.”
Guangzhou reached the quarter-finals of the AFC Champions League in 2012 and will now be favourites to advance to the last eight, but Marcello Lippi’s side were second best in the opening exchanges as the Mariners pushed hard from the first whistle.
The Australians sought to ensure their Chinese counterparts were unable to settle and the tactic worked, and within seven minutes the home side were in front when Bernie Ibini-isei’s flicked pass into the area was volleyed home by Duke.
Steadily, though, Guangzhou imposed themselves on the game and as the midpoint in the half approached, Barrios saw his effort saved by Mathew Ryan before Dario Conca’s follow-up was deflected wide of the target.
By the 27th minute, however, the scores were level as the Mariners were unable to keep Guangzhou’s South American contingent at bay.
Muriqui ran at the home defence before laying the ball off to Conca and, while the Argentinian’s flick failed to come off, the ball fell to Zheng Zhi, whose ball over the top of the defence was rifled into the roof of the net by Barrios.
Gao Lin almost gave Guangzhou the lead just after the restart with an acrobatic volley while Daniel McBreen twice went close for the Mariners before the visitors took the lead their second half performance deserved.
Just four minutes after Ryan somehow kept out a deft effort from Muriqui, the Brazilian put his side in front when Conca’s ball into the middle was shuffled forward by Gao and Muriqui (pictured) gave Ryan no chance with an expert finish.
Five minutes later Muriqui could have added to the scoreline only for Ryan to save with his right foot, but Guangzhou will still go into the second leg confident of advancing once again.
“Obviously it’s a little bit more difficult but football’s a funny game and I’ve been around long enough to know that you can never be comfortable,” said Arnold of the task that lies ahead of his side in the second leg.
“It would have been good to go to 2-2 but we didn’t. At the end of the day, there’s a huge difference between the budgets and the quality in the front part of the field but I was very proud of our performance and we’ll go over there and give it our best shot.”