Paulinho: I returned from Barca a better player
Saitama: Paulinho has claimed that his year-long spell with FC Barcelona helped turn him into a better player, as the Brazilian midfielder prepares to spearhead Guangzhou Evergrande’s quest for an unprecedented third AFC Champions League title.
Following a disappointing period at Tottenham Hotspur, the 31-year-old resurrected his career during his first stint with Guangzhou, when he won the 2015 AFC Champions League, two Chinese Super League titles and earned a recall to the Brazilian national team.
Barcelona came calling and, during a year in Spain, Paulinho won the La Liga–Copa del Rey double before returning to Guangzhou after reaching the quarter-finals of the FIFA World Cup Russia 2018 with La Seleção.
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And, ahead of the 2019 AFC Champions League semi-final first leg against Urawa Red Diamonds at Saitama Stadium on Wednesday, Paulinho admits he is under no illusion regarding the benefit of his season in Spain.
“When I was at Barcelona I played in so many important competitions like La Liga and the UEFA Champions League so since returning I am a much more experienced player,” Paulinho told the-AFC.com.
“I have a better understanding of how to play with my teammates in important competitions such as the AFC Champions League, and that experience is a big help.”
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Iniciando hoje um novo desafio em minha carreira, tendo a certeza que jamais devemos deixar de sonhar e lutar por nossos objetivos. Agradeço a Deus por me proporcionar desenvolver minha profissão em alto nível, o apoio de minha família e o carinho dos fãs, que certamente estão comigo a cada treino, a cada jogo, a cada batalha. Muito feliz e realizado em defender essas cores! Vizca Barça!!! Vamos Barcelona!!! Molt Content de ser nou jugador del FC Barcelona. Força Barça! #p8 #barca #barcelona #fcbarcelona #vizcabarca #forzabarca#deusnocomandosempre
Just over four years ago, Paulinho announced his AFC Champions League arrival in emphatic fashion when his stunning 40-yard free-kick put Guangzhou 2-1 up against Kashiwa Reysol in the first leg of the 2015 quarter-finals.
Luiz Felipe Scolari’s side eventually progressed 4-2 on aggregate before defeating another Japanese side, Gamba Osaka, in the semi-finals and edging past the United Arab Emirates’ Al Ahli 1-0 over two legs in the final to add to the title they won in 2013.
😱 Paulinho shocked the football world on his #ACL debut in Japan 4⃣ years ago.— AFC Champions League (@TheAFCCL) October 1, 2019
👋 🇯🇵 He's back again, this time at the #ACL2019 semi-finals. Will he make headlines again❓#URAvGUA | Semi-Finals | #ACL2019 pic.twitter.com/2zDQTdtUn0
Fast forward four years and a number of key players remain the same, but fresh talent such as defenders Park Ji-soo and Gao Zhunyi, along with forward Wei Shihao, have all been added to head coach Fabio Cannavaro's starting line-up.
“In 2015, we had very experienced players and at that time many of them had a lot of Continental experience, having played many games in the AFC Champions League,” said the Brazilian.
“Now our team is much younger but with a lot of potential. So it’s really a totally different side, but we believe that if we work hard and compete well we have a good chance to win the title this year too.”
Wednesday’s opponents Urawa, meanwhile, are one of four sides to have lifted the AFC Champions League trophy on two occasions, having been crowned champions in 2007 and 2017.
The pair last met in the 2016 group stage, playing out a 2-2 draw in Guangzhou before Urawa won the return meeting 1-0 at Saitama Stadium as the holders eventually exited and the J.league team progressed to the last 16.
“We know Urawa Reds very well; they are a team with a lot of quality and a very strong opponent,” noted Paulinho, who has three goals to his name in the 2019 competition.
“But we also have to be aware that at this stage of the AFC Champions League there are two games and this first leg will not decide the result of the semi-final, so we have to play a very intelligent game.
“If we can play a tactically good game in Japan, I believe we have a chance to qualify when we return to Guangzhou.”
While Guangzhou have not won in seven attempts in Japan (drawn four, lost three) since Paulinho’s Continental debut, they have also never been eliminated by Japanese opposition and indeed ousted defending champions Kashima Antlers in the previous round.
Their home form in the 2019 competition, though, has been in stark contrast to that of their form on the road, with Cannavaro’s team unbeaten at Tianhe Stadium, but having yet to win away.
“I think the difference is because in away games, we have often suffered much more pressure from the opponent in the second half,” added Paulinho.
“We really have to deal with this problem, raise our second-half performances, and play a more balanced game across the 90 minutes.
“If we want to get to the next stage of the AFC Champions League, this is an area we need to improve.”
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