SEOUL, South Korea - Chinese football fans who've had little to celebrate in the last decade have travelled by the thousands hoping to see the dawn of a new era when Marcello Lippi's Guangzhou Evergrande team takes on FC Seoul in the first leg of the 2013 Asian Champions League final.
No Chinese club has won the Asian Champions League since it was launched in 2003, and the only time the country has tasted continental success was in 1990 in the now-defunct Asian Club Championship.
Guangzhou is widely-tipped to end that barren sequence over the two matches against the South Korean champion at Seoul World Cup Stadium on Saturday and in southern China on November 9.
Lippi hopes to become the first coach to win the UEFA Champions League, which he collected with Juventus in 1996, and its Asian equivalent.
"We are fully focused on the Asian Champions League," said Lippi, who earlier this month helped clinch a third straight domestic title for the club he joined in May 2012. "It would be a huge success for Chinese football. This can be a special season for us . and winning would take me back almost 20 years."
There are reports that 6,000 tickets for the final have been sold in China, and there could be as many as 15,000 Guangzhou fans in Seoul for the final.
The signs are promising that Guangzhou can reverse years of poor performances by Chinese clubs on the continent. The team won its group and has scored 14 goals in the previous two rounds, defeating Lekhwiya of Qatar 6-1 over two legs in the quarterfinals and winning the semifinal against Japan's Kashiwa Reysol 8-1 on aggregate.
All 14 were scored by the team's much-vaunted foreign contingent made up of Dario Conca of Argentina, Elkesen and his fellow Brazilian Muriqui, who has found the target 13 times in the 2013 tournament.
"I am aware of the history of Chinese clubs in this competition," Muriqui said. "If we became champions of Asia, it would be an extraordinary achievement for every player and it would be an amazing personal memory."
"I have been able to score a lot of goals in the Champions League this season due to the strong support from the rest of the team," added Muriqui. "Conca and Elkeson give me a lot of support, and together with all the local players, goals will come naturally."
As well as the three South American recruits Guangzhou, which has spent more than $70 million on players since 2010, can call upon six regular starters from the Chinese national team and highly-rated South Korean central defender Kim Young-gwon.
Also in Guangzhou's favour heading into the final is the fact that while they were able to secure another Chinese league title weeks ago and have been able to fully focus on the continental championship, Seoul is still involved in a fierce battle to retain the domestic K-League crown.
There are also selection worries for the Korean club. Right back Cha Du-ri is suspended for the first leg while central defender Kim Ju-young and midfielder Koh Myung-jin are injury doubts.
Despite that, Seoul still holds high hopes. Dejan Damjanovic is in good form after socring four goals in Montenegro's qualification campaign for the 2014 World Cup and five in the ACL so far. Damjanovic has been identified as the Seoul dangerman by Lippi and compared with Sweden's star striker Zlatan Ibrahimovic.
"Damjanovic is very similar to Ibrahimovic technically and Seoul is fast, presses well and is a team with very good movement," Lippi said.
Seoul is expecting more than 50,000 fans to cheer the team on for the home leg as it seeks a vital advantage to take to China for the second leg.
"We want to obtain a head start in the first leg," coach Choi Yong-soo said. "We will have a lot of fans for the home game so I have great expectations.
"We know that Guangzhou is a very strong team but any final is always going to be tough and we are ready to show what we can do."
There is also the fact that although Guangzhou has a World Cup-winning coach and the big-money signings, FC Seoul has history on its side.
South Korean clubs have won three of the last four Asian club titles. In all Asian competitions, Korean teams have been crowned champion 10 times to China's one.
"The success of Korean teams in the Asian Champions League does not add any more pressure, rather it motivates me," South Korea international Kim Chi-woo said. "It is definitely true that we have played well at our home stadium and this is why the first match of the final is so important. We must not concede a goal and also, whenever we make a chance, we have to score.
"The most important thing is to win without conceding a goal."
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