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Football: Guangzhou poised for Asian breakthrough

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(Globalpost/GlobalPost)

Chinese champions Guangzhou Evergrande look poised to storm into the AFC Champions League semi-finals for the first time this week as they zero in on a famous treble under super-coach Marcello Lippi.

While this week's other quarter-final second legs are on a knife-edge, Guangzhou hold a healthy 2-0 lead over Qatar's Lekhwiya as they bid to erase their heartache in missing out at the same stage on their debut last year.

Guangzhou were toppled by Saudi Arabia's two-time winners Al Ittihad a year ago but they have returned stronger in their first full season under Lippi, whose coaching honours include the 2006 World Cup with Italy and 1996 European Champions League with Juventus.

Lippi's men hold a 14-point lead in the Chinese Super League and have reached the domestic cup semi-finals -- as defending champions in both competitions -- as they also bid to secure China's first Asian title since 1990.

Inspired by Argentine maestro Dario Conca, deep-pocketed Guangzhou have established themselves as the favourites in this year's AFC Champions League, winning six of their nine games and scoring a tournament-leading 21 goals.

Brazilian target man Elkeson has successfully replaced departed Paraguayan star Lucas Barrios, scoring against Lekhwiya on his tournament debut last month in what was his 21st goal of the season.

"Lekhwiya are a strong team and as it's the quarter-finals of the AFC Champions League it's always going to be difficult to win games," Elkeson said ahead of the second leg.

"We managed to play really well in the first game at home and now we want to achieve another one of our goals and qualify for the semi-finals."

Lekhwiya are unbeaten at home in this year's AFC Champions League but their task has been complicated by the suspension of three players including captain Madjid Bougherra for accumulating two yellow cards.

In Thailand, former Racing Santander manager Alejandro Menendez will become the third coach to lead Buriram United in this year's competition as the Thai FA Cup-holders attempt to recover from a 1-0 deficit against Iranian champions Esteghlal.

Menendez was appointed last week following the resignation of Englishman Scott Cooper, and the Spaniard enjoyed a good start as Buriram beat BEC Tero Sasana 2-0 for their fifth consecutive league win last Saturday.

Buriram were unfortunate not to get more from their visit to Tehran last month, and a victory in front of their passionate fans in north-eastern Thailand could help them to become the first Thai club to reach the semi-finals in a decade.

The remaining two quarter-finals are both intriguingly poised after 1-1 draws in the first legs.

South Korean champions FC Seoul will be seeking to make it third time lucky in the quarter-finals, after crashing out at this stage in 2009 and 2011, when they entertain last year's runners-up Al Ahli of Saudi Arabia.

And another Saudi side, Al Shabab, will look to build on their away-goal advantage when they host Japanese Emperor's Cup-holders Kashiwa Reysol in Riyadh.

The winners of the Al Shabab-Kashiwa tie will face either Guangzhou or Lekhwiya in the two-legged semi-finals, while FC Seoul or Al Ahli will meet either Buriram or Esteghlal.

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http://www.globalpost.com/dispatch/news/afp/130917/football-guangzhou-poised-asian-breakthrough