KASHIMA, JAPAN: World Cup winner Fabio Cannavaro moved a step closer to AFC Champions League glory as his Guangzhou Evergrande side stunned Asian champions Kashima Antlers Wednesday on away goals to reach the semifinals.
The Chinese giants, who won the competition in 2013 and 2015, go through after drawing 1-1 in Japan following a goalless stalemate in Guangzhou three weeks ago.
Cannavaro, who lifted the 2006 World Cup as Italy’s captain, will be thanking his goalkeeper Zeng Cheng, who pulled off a string of world-class saves to keep his side in the match after they grabbed the crucial away goal before halftime.
A cagey start and mostly tepid first half from the two renowned attacking sides sparked into life when Anderson Talisca put the visitors ahead in the 40th minute.
The bleach-blond Brazilian midfielder rose highest to meet Huang Bowen’s corner on the right and head home unstoppably from close range.
Lacklustre Kashima had won their last six home games in the knockout stages of the AFC Champions League, keeping three clean sheets, and the goal served to wake the Japanese giants.
They laid siege to the Guangzhou goal after halftime and it took just six minutes of the second period to equalize.
Leo Silva’s speculative shot was deflected past the unlucky Zeng off another Brazilian, Serginho, who was credited with the goal.
Kashima needed to score again to keep their title defense alive and coach Go Oiwa threw on his dual attacking threat of Yuki Soma and Ayase Ueda with 20 minutes to go as he went all out in search of the winner.
It almost paid off immediately as Oeda started a smooth passing move that culminated in Serginho rattling the crossbar with a superb 20-yard left-foot curler that had Zeng for once stranded.
Kashima kept pressing and Guangzhou and Zeng desperately kept them at bay until a dramatic fourth and final minute of added time. With just 10 seconds remaining Leo Silva danced into the box on the left flank, cut back toward the penalty spot and beat Zeng with a right-foot shot only to see it blocked on the line by a sprawling defender.
It was hacked clear as the referee blew for full time and the Guangzhou players to a man collapsed to the turf in relief and a large contingent of traveling fans from the southern Chinese city danced in the stands.
They go through to a semifinal against fellow two-time champions Urawa Red Diamonds from Japan next month, with the winners meeting either Al-Sadd from Qatar or Saudi Arabia’s Al-Hilal in November’s two-legged final.