China’s world-leading transfer splurge has left two teams with red faces after holders Guangzhou Evergrande and Jiangsu Suning crashed out of the AFC Champions League group stage.
Just months after they repeatedly smashed Asia’s transfer record to hire top players, the two sides flopped in the regional competition, a route to a coveted FIFA Club World Cup spot.
Luiz Felipe Scolari’s Evergrande were particularly poor as they were eliminated with a game to spare. Both Chinese clubs exited with just two wins from their six group games.
Evergrande’s injury-hit striker Jackson Martinez has been unable to fill the shoes of the prolific Elkeson — now with Shanghai SIPG — since arriving from Atletico Madrid.
And on Wednesday, a Jiangsu line-up featuring Asia’s record signing Alex Teixeira, ex-Chelsea midfielder Ramires and Jo, who has played for Manchester City and Brazil, was held 2-2 by Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors to join Evergrande on the sidelines.
The big-spending clubs’ failure has particular resonance this week after little Leicester City stunned the glamour sides of English football to claim an incredible Premier League title.
In January and February, Chinese teams broke the Asian transfer record four times in a sudden spending spree which outstripped even the mega-rich English Premier League.
Recriminations are likely to be fierce, especially at Chinese champions Evergrande who installed a new president in a shake-up last month, reportedly because of their struggles in Asia.
– ‘Money isn’t everything’ –
Footballing fortunes are now closely watched by China’s rich and powerful after President Xi Jinping launched a drive to turn the sleeping giant into a world soccer power.
Evergrande have won the Champions League twice in the past three years, plus five consecutive Chinese league titles, but defeats to Sydney FC and Urawa Red Diamonds sealed their fate.
“When you look at individuals, obviously they (Evergrande) have the better side,” Urawa coach Mihailo Petrovic said last month.
“But I think we gained confidence by beating this Chinese giant because it proves that money isn’t everything in football.”
However, the Asian competition is not over for Chinese clubs after Sven-Goran Eriksson’s Shanghai SIPG finished top of Group G to set up a last-16 clash with FC Tokyo.
Shandong Luneng, led by former Brazil coach Mano Menezes, are also into the knock-out stages where they face a difficult home-and-away assignment against Sydney FC.
Graham Arnold’s Sydney topped a tough Group H in what has been an encouraging campaign for Australian teams, with Melbourne Victory also into the eliminators.
“If we continue to play the way we’re playing — especially against the top teams in Asia that we’ve played against — we can now match it with anyone,” Sydney midfielder Brandon O’Neill told the Sydney Morning Herald.
Former Asian champions Al Hilal, Al Ain and Jeonbuk are also through to the two-legged round of 16, which gets under way on May 17.