BEIJING (AFP) – Midfield maestro Dario Conca put China's Guangzhou Evergrande on course for the AFC Champions League semi-finals as he inspired a 2-0 win over Qatar's Lekhwiya on Wednesday.
The tournament favourites left it late before the Argentine converted a penalty on 72 minutes, and set up Brazil's Elkeson four minutes later ahead of the return leg in Doha on September 18.
The victory at a noisy Tianhe Sports Centre in southern China means Guangzhou, led by World Cup-winning coach Marcello Lippi, are odds-on to reach the last four for the first time.
Guangzhou entered the quarter-finals as the tournament's joint top-scorers and runaway domestic leaders, and it was no surprise when they dominated possession in the first half.
But the Chinese double-holders were off-key in front of goal with striker Gao Lin bobbling a cross harmlessly to the 'keeper when a goal threatened, and then glancing a diving header wide.
Lekhwiya were crowding out the normally free-flowing Guangzhou with a packed defence. Even Muriqui, the competition's leading scorer with eight goals, showed fallibility as he put a great chance over.
Gao fired a shot across the face and Conca, estimated as one of the world's best paid players when he joined Guangzhou in 2011, swerved a free-kick just wide.
Lekhwiya's rare forays forward had been marked by long-range pot-shots but striker Sebastian Suria nearly gave them a shock lead on half-time with a stinging shot from distance.
Guangzhou's frustrations continued after the break and Elkeson, with 20 goals in 21 domestic appearances, was guilty of a glaring miss when he put a free header wide.
The Brazilian bungled again when a throw-in slipped out of his hands and travelled only a few feet, in what was threatening to become a night to forget for the hosts.
Conca had a chance saved at point-blank range by Lekhwiya goalkeeper Claude Amin, who played hero again minutes later when he denied Muriqui in a one-on-one.
And Elkeson had an open goal at his mercy and still hit the post, although his blushes were spared by the linesman's flag for offside.
Eventually Guangzhou needed a penalty to break the deadlock and when Conca went down in a clumsy challenge from Khaled Muftah, he stepped up and sent Amin the wrong way to give his team the lead.
Just four minutes later, the Argentine turned creator as he back-heeled a one-two with Elkeson who ran on to the return ball and powered home Guangzhou's second.
As the massed ranks of red-shirted fans celebrated, Muriqui nearly made it three goals in seven minutes but he turned his tightly angled shot into the side-netting instead of the empty goal.
Huang Bowen warmed Amin's hands with an injury-time free-kick and Guangzhou appealed for a second penalty when Muriqui appeared to be caught by Karim Boudiaf in the box.
Earlier Saudi Arabia's Al Shabab held J-League outfit Kashiwa Reysol to a 1-1 away draw to raise their hopes of reaching the semi-finals for the first time.
Kashiwa were quickest out of the blocks and the early pressure told when Leandro Domingues' indirect free-kick rebounded to striker Masato Kudo, who planted it home from just inside the box.
But 2012 Saudi champions Al Shabab equalised a minute before half-time when Brazilian midfielder Fernando Menegazzo, after a corner, swept in a glorious shot off the underside of the bar.