Kuala Lumpur: In the third part of this series of profiles, we look at five Chinese icons of the AFC Champions League era.
Since the opening edition of the AFC Champions League in 2002-03 to recent times, players from the world's most populous nation have left an indelible mark on the tournament.
While the bulk of our selection is understandably from powerhouse Guangzhou Evergrande - two-time winners and, indeed, the only side from China to lift the title in the AFC Champions League era - we have also included two stand-out forwards who have made their own Continental history away from the southern heavyweights.
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AFC Champions League Editions: 9
Captain, leader, legend – Zheng Zhi has been at Guangzhou Evergrande from the very start of their rise to national and then Continental prominance. Joining the club in 2010 and leading them out of the second tier before the Guangdong side embarked on a scintillating decade of success that includes two AFC Champions League titles.
Zheng's first campaign in Asia actually came back in 2005 for Shandong Luneng and the now defence-minded player was in attack mode netting five times in six appearances. However, when he returned to the competition seven years later with Guangzhou he had returned to his more usual position anchoring the midfield. A narrow quarter-final exit for the southern Chinese side was an indicator of things to come.
A year later, Guangzhou proved irrestible on their path to the final, enjoying big wins over Central Coast Mariners, Lekhwiya and Kashiwa Reysol on their way to a meeting with FC Seoul in the final. An away-goals victory over the Koreans saw Zheng lift the trophy alongside FIFA World Cup-winning coach Marcello Lippi and end a Continental drought for China PR that went back to 1990.
The result saw Zheng recognised as the 2013 AFC Player of the Year, beating out IR Iran's Javad Nekounam and Ha Dae-sung of Korea Republic. And just two years later, it was deja vu for Zheng and his teammates as this time a narrow 1-0 aggregate win over Al Ahli of UAE saw them crowned two-time champions with their inspirational number 10 once more a near ever-present.
AFC Champions League Editions: 12
While Zheng Zhi's appearance tally at the competition is impressive, there are few that can surpass that of teammate and fellow midfielder Huang Bowen who has appeared in a stunning 12 editions of the tournament for Beijing FC, Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors and Guangzhou Evergrande.
Huang's Asian adventures began in 2008 but, like Zheng, it was 2013 when the man from Hunan really shone as part of the side that made history for China PR at the AFC Champions League, appearing 12 times for Guangzhou on their way to the title.
Arguably, though, Huang enjoyed his best season in the AFC Champions League in 2015, when his direct involvement came to the fore in the knockout stages as he scored three sensational strikes in consecutive rounds.
A long-range strike against Seongnam FC in the Round of 16 first leg secured a vital away goal, before he thumped home a sumptuous volley in the quarter-final against Kashiwa Reysol after the J.League side had closed the gap to a single goal. A wonderful half-volley against Gamba Osaka in the semi-finals cancelled out the visitors' shock opener as Guangzhou would march to another Continental crown.
AFC Champions League Editions: 8
Our third and final entrant from Guangzhou Evergrande, Zhang Linpeng is among China's most recognisable defenders and, like Zheng Zhi and Huang Bowen, a consistent member of the team that has proved China's most dominant in the ACL era.
Often compared to Spain's Sergio Ramos due to his playing style – an attack-minded full-back with an affinity for crunching tackles – Zhang has been described by no less a luminary than Marcello Lippi as "the best Chinese footballer in the Chinese Super League".
Unlike his teammates Zheng and Huang, Zhang's first taste of Continental football came with Guangzhou in 2012, but it was a relationship that has endured every year since with the Jinan man making the right-back spot his own and earning a place in the tournament's best XI for the 2013 and 2015 editions.
Linked with clubs like Chelsea and Real Madrid on merit during his career, the two-time AFC Champions League winner has continued to evolve as a player and is now comfortable across the backline and has often taken roles at centre-back or the left side as needed.
AFC Champions League Editions: 3
Such was the form that China star Wu Lei showed in his all-too-brief spell in the AFC Champions League, that he earned a move to La Liga side Espanyol and was soon scoring goals in a different Continental competition, UEFA's Europa League.
The Nanjing native hit the ground running at the 2016 edition of Asia's premier club tournament, scoring Shanghai SIPG's first-ever AFC Champions League goal before adding two more in the group stage and a memorable brace across the two legs of their Round of 16 win over FC Tokyo.
A disappointing quarter-final elimination was bettered in 2017 when Wu was part of a fearsome forward foursome including Hulk, Elkeson and Oscar that played some of the most exciting attacking football in the tournament. Wu netted another five goals as this time Shanghai SIPG reached the semi-finals before defeat to Urawa Red Diamonds.
Asian forwards have often been overshadowed by foreign imports and alongside the likes of Hulk, Dario Conca, Elkeson, Asamoah Gyan and Oscar, Wu could easily have lacked opportunities and regressed. But it couldn't have been further from the truth with the dynamic number 7 maturing as a player and cementing his place in the line-up before a move to Spain in January 2019.
AFC Champions League Editions: 2
China PR's record goalscorer was coming towards the end of his illustrious career when the AFC Champions League era began, but the Dalian Shide striker was able to put on a display in the inaugural competition that cemented his status as a Continental legend and the tournament's first Top Scorer.
Prior to the competition's revamp and renaming as the AFC Champions League in 2002-03, legendary China striker Hao Haidong had already made his presence felt on the Asian stage and earned runners-up medals at the Asian Club Championship in 1998 and the 2000-01 Asian Cup Winners' Cup.
Despite Hao and Dalian going goalless in their opener against Shimizu S-Pulse, they responded to going behind against Thai side Osotsapa FC in their next tie by firing in seven – with Hao scoring four of them.
The torch paper had been lit for the Qingdao attacker and he found the net five times in the next three matches, although it proved not quite enough as Al Ain edged them out in the semi-finals. Hao also appeared at the 2004 edition but was unable to reach the same heights as he neared retirement.
Now you've read up on our five China legends in the AFC Champions League, tell us who is your favourite by voting below (Poll ends at 1600 (UTC 8) on April 10).
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