Days after Guangzhou Evergrande surrendered its lead atop the Chinese Super League, World Cup winning coach Marcello Lippi is be under intense pressure to mastermind a comeback from a 4-2 first-leg deficit against Al Ittihad of Saudi Arabia in the quarterfinals of the 2012 Asian Champions League.
A season that promised so much for the Chinese champion is in serious danger of ending with nothing if the continental club championship bid fades in the quarterfinals on Tuesday. A surprise defeat in the domestic league to lowly Qingdao Jonoon last Friday night resulted in the long-term leaders slipping to second place with four games remaining behind Jiangsu Sainty.
Elimination from the continental competition would be a disaster for Lippi. No Chinese team has won the Asian title since 1989 and Guangzhou has outlaid plenty of money recruiting talent in an attempt to end that barren run. The club hired Lippi, who took Italy to the 2006 World Cup and Juventus to the UEFA Champions League a decade earlier, in May.
"This (quarterfinal series) will be decided over 180 minutes and hopefully when we play at home all of our players will be back," Lippi said after the first-leg loss at Jeddah two weeks ago when his team had twice taken the lead only to concede two second-half goals to Saudi Arabia international striker Naif Hazazi.
Guangzhou welcomes back key defender Zhang Linpeng and midfielder Zhao Zuri, although Brazilian striker and Chinese Super League top scorer Muriqui could miss the game through injury.
Unlike the Chinese team, Al Ittihad rested last weekend. The Saudi Arabian club eliminated Chinese opposition in its march to the 2004 and 2005 titles and has set its sights on a third regional crown.
"To be champions of Asia, it's the dream of any player in any team and when you get to be champion it's the way to go to the FIFA Club World Cup," Hazazi said. "It's a famous competition and we want to play there against the top players in the world."
The three other quarterfinals are more delicately poised.
Adelaide United was held to a 2-2 draw at home by Bunyodkor but is not daunted by the return leg in Uzbekistan, and not just because this is the fourth meeting between the two teams this year. The teams also met in the group stage.
Prior to a sending-off at the end of the first half in Adelaide's Hindmarsh Stadium, the Australians were 2-0 ahead and dominating.
"When we were leading 2-0 we had a few more chances to put them away completely. It could have been all over in the first half," Adelaide striker Iain Ramsay told Australian media. "We are still really confident we can pull off the result we need over there. They were there for the taking. I really fancy us to win over there. We won 2-1 in the group stage against them in Tashkent and they will remember that. They were very fortunate. The truth is they couldn't deal with us when we had 11 players."
Adelaide eliminated Bunyodkor in the semifinal of the 2008 edition only to lose to Japan's Gamba Osaka in the final. Neither country has yet produced a winner of the competition.
That is certainly not the case of South Korea. K-League teams have been Asian champion on nine occasions but Ulsan Horangi is bidding for a first title.
Ulsan defeated Al Hilal 1-0 in East Asia in the first leg but now face a tough match in the Saudi Arabian capital Riyadh.
The first leg of the remaining fixture between Sepahan and Al Ahli of Saudi Arabia ended goalless but was overshadowed by an incident involving a firecracker thrown on the field in Iran's Foolad Shahr Stadium before exploding.
The game was delayed for five minutes and the matter is being investigated by the Asian Football Confederation.
Either Sepahan or Al Ahli will take on Al Ittihad or Guangzhou in the semifinal as the draw has already been made. Adelaide or Bunyodkor will meet Ulsan or Al Hilal in the other match.