Players of Guangzhou Evergrande celebrate during the awarding ceremony of the AFC Champions League final match between Guangzhou Evergrande and Al Ahli of United Arab Emirates in Guangzhou, China, Nov. 21, 2015. Guangzhou Evergrande won 1-0 and claimed the title. (Xinhua/Cao Can)
After making history in 2013 to become the first Chinese team to win the AFC Champions League, five-time Chinese Super League (CSL) champions Guangzhou Evergrande stormed back to the Asian top podium here on Saturday.
Drawing Al Ahli from the United Arab Emirates (UAE) 0-0 in Dubai on Nov. 7 and winning 1-0 at home tonight, Evergrande presented a brilliant gift to the Chinese fans who had been upset by their national team's poor performance in the 2018 World Cup qualifying campaign.
The triumph is also a boost to Chinese football.
In Tianhe Stadium tonight, Brazilian striker Elkeson became the hero as his goal in the second half helped his team achieve the glory in front of more than 42,000 fans.
Stunned by Western Sydney Wanderers from Australia in the AFC Champions League quarterfinals last year, Evergrande vowed to regain the title from the beginning of this season. Under the guidance of Brazilian Luiz Felipe Scolari, who replaced Italian Fabio Cannavaro as the head coach in June, Evergrande kept a 22-match unbeaten run before tonight's final duel.
The AFC Champions League title is also the first continental trophy for Scolari since he steered the Selecao to the Confederation Cup in 2013 on home soil. The 67-year-old Brazilian became another coach who possesses World Cup and AFC Champions League trophy following Italian Marcello Lippi, the former coach of Evergrande.
Scolari said:" I want to say thank you to all my players for what they have paid and to the football fans for their support which give us a different feeling tonight."
The trophy tonight can be seen as a turning point for Scolari after the 1-7 loss to Germany in the semifinals of World Cup in Brazil last year.
When asked about how to go through the nightmare, Scolari said: "Winners will never give up."
Comparing with the first leg in Dubai, Scolari made two changes in tonight's starting lineup as Li Xuepeng and Mei Fang were substituted by Zou Zheng and South Korean defender Kim Young Gwon. The team's top striker Ricardo Goulart from Brazil also appeared in the starting 11 in spite of his injury suffered in the first leg.
Evergrande almost took the lead just seven minutes into the game when Elkeson beat the defenders on the left side in the box before passing the ball to Goulart whose close-range shot narrowly missed the target.
Al Ahli hit back in the 27th minute as playmaker Ribeiro's powerful shot was denied by Evergrande's goalie Zeng Cheng.
The home team was dealt a heavy blow as Zeng Cheng limped off in the 39th minute with injury, and substitute goalie Li Shuai came in.
Evergrande dominated the game after the interval and broke the deadlock in the 54th minute. Elkeson picked up Zheng Long's penetrating pass, turned around to dance past a central defender and sent the ball into the far corner. It was also Elkeson who opened the scoring in the second leg of the tournament's final two years ago.
Things were getting worse for Al Ahli as their central defender Salmin Khamis Salmin was sent off due to an awful tackle against Zheng Long on 66 minutes.
Al Ahli missed the golden opportunity to tie the score when Lima's single pole ball was blocked by Kim Young Gwon.
Elkeson almost scored again in the stoppage time but had to see his attempt inside the box go above the crossbar.
Goulart secured the Golden Boot with eight goals in the AFC Champions League, two more than his closest rivals Ahmed Khalil from Al Ahli and Yang Xu from CSL giants Shandong Luneng.
Goulart said:" I want to say thanks to Evergrande for their trust. We embraced the AFC Champions League title after we claimed the CSL champions. Although I have been champion every year since 2012, today is different and will be marked in my career. And now we should pay more attention to the FIFA Club World Cup."
Al Ahli coach Aurelian Cosmin Olaroiu from Romania said, "We have tried our best. We did a good job in the first half and created some good opportunities. Evergrande had a good performance. They deserve to be the champions."
It was the first time for Al Ahli, the six-time UAE League champions, to enter the AFC Champions League final. UAE's Al Ain had won the first edition of the AFC Champions League in 2003.