Chinese clubs spend less but want more Asian success

KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia — Chinese Super League clubs may have reined in the massive spending that made headlines in recent years in the 2018 winter transfer window, but the country's leading clubs still have ambitions to win the 2018 Asian Champions League that begins Feb. 12.

Guangzhou Evergrande has refrained from making an expensive signing from Europe, reiterating its target to field an all-Chinese team by 2020. It is still a realistic contender for the 2018 Champions League title, however, to add to its wins in 2013 and 2015.

"The club has a proud record in Asia," said coach Fabio Cannavaro after replacing Luiz Felipe Scolari as head coach of the team that has won the last seven Chinese Super League titles. "We know that it will not be easy but are looking forward to testing ourselves against the best teams in Asia."

Guangzhou will take on Cerezo Osaka of Japan, South Korea's Jeju United and Buriram United of Thailand, Southeast Asia's sole representative, in Group G.

Only the top two from each of the eight groups of four, which are split into two geographic zones in the east and west of the continent, progress to the knockout stage.

Shanghai SIPG made the semifinal in 2017 and then saw boss Andre Villas-Boas depart in November. Star players Oscar and Hulk, both signed in 2016 at a combined cost of over $100 million, remain.Both will be key in a group containing Melbourne Victory of Australia and South Korea's Ulsan Horangi.

"We know we have to improve in the group," Oscar said after Shanghai defeated Changrai United of Thailand in a Jan. 30 playoff to move into the group stage. "We will be playing against some of the best in Asia, but we have experience in the tournament now and that will help us."

Shanghai also faces Kawasaki Frontale. The Japanese champions are the country's biggest hope after Urawa Reds, Asian Champions last year, failed to qualify for the 2018 edition.

Tianjin Quanjian is making a debut appearance and with international stars such as Belgian international Axel Witsel, Alexandre Pato of Brazil and France's Anthony Modeste, the team has a chance with new coach Paulo Sousa.

"It is great inspiration for Chinese football because there will be a new Chinese team playing in the Asian Champions League," said Sousa, who succeeded Cannavaro as head coach in December. "We have the faith to continue our journey successfully, to overcome every opponent and go further."

Tianjin will face Jeonbuk Motors. South Korea's No. 1 cub won the 2016 tournament but was barred from defending its title last year after a club scout was found guilty of bribing referees in the K-League in 2013.

The Australian challenge will be headed by Sydney FC, which qualified for the competition by dominating the 2016-17 A-League season. The Sky Blues are in first place so far this season.

Preparation for the western half of the group stage has been overshadowed by the blockade of Qatar, instigated by four countries in the region in June 2017.

On Jan. 26, the Asian Football Confederation instructed teams from Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, two countries involved in the blockade, to play Qatari opposition home and away and not, as requested, at neutral venues.

West Asian teams have won just one Champions League title since 2005, with the eastern half of the continent dominating.

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