A late Al Ittihad goal sent Marcello Lippi’s Guangzhou Evergrande crashing out of the AFC Champions League after a heart-pounding quarter-final second leg on Tuesday.
Fahad Al Muwallad’s deflected strike on 78 minutes made it 2-1 on the night and 5-4 on aggregate to the two-time champions, crushing the hopes of the massed ranks of red-clad Guangzhou fans in the southern Chinese city.
Lucas Barrios’ individual strike and Dario Conca’s well-taken penalty, awarded questionably after Gao Lin was adjudged fouled in the box, looked to have been enough for the Chinese champions who at that point were through on away goals.
But Al Muwallad popped up late to squirm a low shot into the Guangzhou goal as the 2004 and 2005 Asian champions from Saudi Arabia deservedly went through after their 4-2 win in the first leg in Jeddah.
Al Ittihad will now play either cross-Jeddah rivals Al Ahli or Sepahan of Iran in the semi-finals. But the heartbreak was palpable for a World Cup-winner Lippi’s side, who were in dominant form before being hit by a classic sucker-punch.
Barrios gave Guangzhou the lead in the 19th minute, holding off the Al Ittihad defence before turning to clip his shot to the right of Saudi Arabia international goalkeeper Mabrouk Zaid.
It was no less than the Chinese side deserved having seen Barrios hit the crossbar just seconds earlier in an opening quarter of the game dictated by Lippi’s team.
And with 10 minutes remaining in the half Guangzhou claimed the vital second goal when Conca converted with aplomb from the penalty spot after Osama Al Harbi was ruled to have brought down Gao in the area.
That left the scores level on aggregate and with Guangzhou holding the upper hand due to the two away goals scored in Jeddah.
Naif Hazazi – Al Ittihad’s two-goal hero in the first leg but a surprise substitute here — sent an unmarked header straight into the arms of Li Shuai from close range as the game hit the hour-mark, underlining the Saudis’ threat.
But Guangzhou had ample opportunities to extend their lead, with Conca hitting the post with a long-range effort in the 62nd minute just two minutes after seeing his sliding effort deflected wide.
With just 12 minutes remaining, Guangzhou were made to pay for their profligacy when substitute Al Muwallad’s shot was deflected past Li to book Al Ittihad’s place in a fifth AFC Champions League semi-final in nine seasons.
Guangzhou, making their tournament debut and bankrolled by a wealthy property firm, were the first Chinese team to reach the quarter-finals since 2006.