China's Shanghai Shenhua made a winning start to 2020 AFC Champions League with a 2-1 victory over Australia's Perth Glory as the East Zone matches resumed in Qatar on Wednesday -- eight months after the tournament was brought to a halt by the coronavirus pandemic.
The 2019 Chinese FA Cup winners struck early through Peng Xinli before Yu Hanchao provided a two-goal cushion before the half-time break. A depleted Perth Glory did manage to reduce the deficit in the dying minutes of the Group F encounter but failed to take points off their opponents.
For the Chinese Super League outfit, it was the first taste of victory in the continental showpiece in 11 years since a 2-1 home win over Suwon Samsung Bluewings in a group stage tie at the Hongkou Football Stadium back in the 2009 edition of Asia's top-tier club competition.
Teams from China, Thailand, Australia, South Korea and Japan have reassembled in Qatar for the resumption of East Zone matches. The team to challenge Iran's Persepolis FC, winners of the western conference, in the final of 2020 ACL on December 19 will be decided over the next few weeks.
Coaches left to scramble as fitness headache mounts
Perth have seen an exodus of players in recent months. Former Australia international Richard Garcia, replacing Champions League-winning coach Tony Popovic who left during the break, had to fill his side's starting 11 with four youth players including a 16-year-old Joshua Rowlins at right back.
Choi Kang-hee had his own share of concerns while selecting his Shenhua squad with defender Stephane Mbia, the only import to feature in their matchday roster on Wednesday. While Giovanni Moreno and Kim Shin-wook continued to nurse injuries, Stephan El Shaarawy, Miller Bolanos and Fidel Martinez have not been registered.
While the two-time ACL winner had a handful of players out injured following an exhausting domestic campaign which concluded only last week, Perth boss Garcia, on the other hand, had a group of players who last played competitively in late August and will only start their new season late next month.
Shenhua makes most of the chances for narrow win
Perth's inexperience was evident in a jittery start at the Education City Stadium in Doha when Rawlins lost the ball to 33-year-old Yu in the left wing. Yu fed Zhu Jianrong who squared it up for Peng to apply the finish in the seventh minute for the first goal of the East Zone restart.
The Chinese outfit's display was largely subdued after the opening goal, but Yu popped up with a solo run and slotted home a crucial second in the 38th minute -- amply aided by a sloppy piece of goalkeeping from Perth Glory's 33-year-old custodian Tando Velaphi who should have produced a save.
Perth looked far more composed after the interval though. Bruno Fornaroli produced their first real chance five minutes into the second half but couldn't get it past goalkeeper Li Shuai. They did find the back of the net with less than 10 minutes to go as defender Jonathan Aspropotamitis scored from a rebound after Li denied Carlo Armiento.
A first-ever goal in the AFC Champions League, however, was not enough for Perth who now find themselves bottom of Group F after two matches while Shanghai Shenhua are one point behind Japan's FC Tokyo, but with a game in hand.
A grueling schedule awaits the Chinese outfit
The win at the Education City Stadium only marks the beginning of a highly-demanding calendar for Shenhua who will be in action every three days up until December 3 when they face South Korea's Ulsan Hyundai in their final fixture in the group stage.
Shenhua and local rivals Shanghai SIPG are the only clubs who will play six games in the group stage since neither side had started play before the suspension. Up next for Shenhua will be a clash against Ulsan on Saturday.
Meanwhile, the 2018-19 A-League premiers will have a six-day rest before taking on the South Koreans on November 24 where they will seek for their first-ever points in the Asian Champions League.