Scolari feels pressure in China

Since Guangzhou Evergrande started the new wave of spending in Chinese soccer in 2010, the club has enjoyed constant success - until now.

The title-holders were last week dumped out of the Asian Champions League with a game still remaining in the group stage.

Guangzhou has spent over $200 million on players and coaches in the past five years including almost $50 million in January on Colombian striker Jackson Martinez from Atletico Madrid.

The club has not only won the past five Chinese Super League titles, it has, under World Cup winning managers Marcello Lippi and Luiz Felipe Scolari, won two of the past three continental crowns.

Two points from the first four group games this season meant that the 2-0 midweek win at South Korea's Pohang Steelers could not prevent the early exit. For the first time since arriving in China in June 2015, Scolari finds himself under pressure from the media.

"It has been a difficult week for us," Scolari admitted on Saturday. "We obviously had ambitions in Asia but now we have to focus on winning the Chinese Super League. The standard is getting higher and we face a challenge every week."

Guangzhou is going well in the domestic league and captain and two-time Asian Player of the Year Zheng Zhi has wants to ensure that Guangzhou qualifies for next year's Champions League.

"Unfortunately, we failed to get to the second round for many reasons," said Zheng. "We now have to face the reality and start thinking about the league and FA Cup. We want to be champions and then get into Asia once again."

Guangzhou has long identified its stature with Asian success. In its four previous appearances, the club reached the semifinal and quarterfinal as well as its two wins.

In December, then Guangzhou president Liu Yongzhou told The Associated Press how important the competition is to the club.

"For Guangzhou, we have won the trophy two times now and it is important for the club to win it again and make it three," said Liu. "We will do everything we can to defend the trophy we won."

Liu was relieved of his duties earlier this month partly, according to Chinese media speculation, because of the poor results in Asia.

To makes matter worse, Guangzhou has had to watch as domestic rival Shanghai SIPG progressed to the second round, helped by two of Guangzhou's former stars.

In January, Guangzhou surprisingly sold striker Elkeson for around $22 million to the 2015 Chinese Super League runner-up.

The Brazilian scored 16 goals in the Asian Champions League in 26 starts in three successful seasons with Guangzhou, including the only goal of the 2015 final.

The more expensive Martinez has yet to score in Asia. It has not gone unnoticed by Guangzhou fans that Elkeson scored his fourth goal of the current continental competition on Tuesday to help Shanghai win and progress to the second round with a game to spare.

"He (Elkeson) is a top-class striker and scores consistently," said Shanghai manager Sven-Goran Eriksson, who was delighted at securing a place in the last 16.

"Last year Shanghai were dreaming about winning the AFC Champions League title and up till now we've been doing pretty good. Everyone at the club and all the fans are all very happy."

Dario Conca, who starred for Guangzhou in its 2013 Asian triumph before returning to South America and then signing with Shanghai, also scored.

Perhaps almost as pleasing for Eriksson is that he has often ended up as second best in past meetings with Scolari. The Brazilian knocked Eriksson's England out of the 2002 and 2006 World Cup and the 2004 European Championships, all at the quarterfinal stage.

Scolari also triumphed in the 2015 Chinese Super League, finishing first above Eriksson's Shanghai in second.

Shanghai felt it should have taken the title instead. With six games remaining Eriksson's team was top but never recovered from losing 3-0 at home to Guangzhou with Elkeson getting among the goals.