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Football: Lippi's Guangzhou seek better days for China

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(GlobalPost/GlobalPost)

Marcello Lippi's Guangzhou Evergrande face an early test against Urawa Red Diamonds as they open their bid for AFC Champions League glory and the chance to repair the battered image of Chinese football.

Lippi, who led Italy to victory at the 2006 World Cup, was one of the newly rich Chinese Super League's high-profile recruits last year and he proved his credentials by clinching the domestic double at the end of his first season.

However, the departures of strikers Didier Drogba and Nicolas Anelka, just months after joining Shanghai Shenhua, and the climax of an ugly corruption scandal have again cast the ambitious league in an unflattering light.

Guangzhou will now attempt to better last year's showing in the Asian club contest, when a late goal by Fahad Al Muwallad saw them bow out 5-4 on aggregate to Al Ittihad of Saudi Arabia in the quarter-finals.

They will go into this year's competition, where they will seek to become China's first Asian champions since Liaoning in 1990, full of confidence after retaining the core of last year's side.

Captain Zheng Zhi, striker Gao Lin, Argentinean midfielder Dario Conca, Brazilian forward Muriqui and Paraguayan striker Lucas Barrios all remain, with depth added in the form of goalkeeper Zeng Cheng and defender Zhao Peng from Henan, and winger Feng Renliang from Shanghai Shenhua.

Guangzhou will host the pick of Tuesday's first round of games when they welcome Japan's Urawa, who won the tournament in 2007 but are returning to the Asian competition for the first time since 2008.

Urawa beat Iran's Sepahan 3-1 on aggregate to lift the trophy in 2007, and reached the semi-finals the following year. But they then failed to qualify for four straight years and narrowly avoided relegation from the J-League in 2011.

Under coach Mihailo Petrovic, Urawa clinched their Champions League spot by finishing third in the J-League last year, and they are now eager to shine again on the continental stage.

"Everybody was pleased because we never gave up and fought until the end. It was extremely important for Urawa to return to the AFC Champions League once again," said Urawa captain Yuki Abe, who scored in the 2007 final.

"No team has won both the J-League and AFC Champions League in the same season, but we will try to reach that goal while it is possible," said Abe, who returned to Urawa last year after a spell with England's Leicester City.

"We must ensure we reach our potential in every game. The team must be coherent and always play to win."

In Tuesday's other Group F game, South Korea's Jeonbuk Motors, the 2006 winners and 2011 runners-up, start with an away fixture against Thai Premier League champions Muangthong United.

In Group E, South Korean champions FC Seoul will kick off at home against China's Jiangsu Sainty, who are making their competition debut. Japan's Vegalta Sendai host Thai FA Cup-holders Buriram United in the group's other game.

Group G will kick off on Wednesday with J-League champions Sanfrecce Hiroshima hosting last year's semi-finalists Bunyodkor of Uzbekistan, and Korean FA Cup winners Pohang Steelers facing Chinese side Beijing Guoan.

In Group H, another team of Chinese newcomers, Guizhou Renhe, meet Japanese Emperor's Cup-holders Kashiwa Reysol, while Australia's Central Coast Mariners take on Korean side Suwon Bluewings.

Two west Asian groups will kick off on Tuesday. In Group A, Spanish coach Luis Milla will take charge of Al Jazira for the first time, just days after he replaced Brazilian Paulo Bonamigo, against Iran's Tractorsazi Tabriz.

In Group B, Qatari champions Lekhwiya will host play-off winners Al Shabab Al Arabi of the UAE, while Uzbek champions Pakhtakor, the only side to qualify for all 11 editions, take on Saudi Arabia's Al Ettifaq.

On Wednesday, Iranian champions Sepahan will entertain UAE side Al Nasr and Saudi Arabia's Al Ahli will meet Al Gharafa of Qatar in Group C, while 2003 champions Al Ain of the UAE will meet Saudi side Al Hilal in Group D.

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http://www.globalpost.com/dispatch/news/afp/130225/football-lippis-guangzhou-seek-better-days-china