Having finished top of their “Group of Death” in the AFC Champions League, Sydney FC coach Graham Arnold says bring on Shandong Luneng in the knockout phase.
Despite losing 1-0 to defending ACL champions Guangzhou Evergrande in China on Tuesday night, the Sky Blues stayed at the top of their group thanks to Urawa Red Diamonds draw with Pohang Steelers in the other group game.
It was a great night for the Hyundai A-League with Melbourne Victory also winning their final group game.
Finishing top means Sydney FC avoids a daunting clash against Korean powerhouse FC Seoul and will instead take on another Chinese outfit Shandong Luneng in the last 16.
The ties will be played later this month with the first leg in China on May 18 before returning to Sydney a week later.
And the Sky Blues will fancy their chances against Shandong, a side which has won just twice from seven matches domestically to sit 12th in the Chinese Super League.
“If you had said to me before we started in this group of death that we would top the group and be ahead of Guangzhou, Urawa Reds and Pohang Steelers I wouldn’t have believed it,” Arnold said.
“But we’ve worked extremely hard, our performances have been excellent in the Champions League.
“Now we get to play another Chinese team in Shandong, which will be a very tough game. But we’ll be very confident after tonight.
“Playing against the richest club in China the best club in China and performing like that. We’ll be very confident going into the next game.”
Against Guangzhou, the Sky Blues fell behind inside two minutes to a goal from Chinese international Gao Lin.
But they recovered to push Luis Felipe Scolari’s men hard, unlucky not to have come away from the match with a draw.
“It was a very good performance from us. We made a lot of changes because of the players with yellow cards and we didn’t want to risk them for the last 16,” Arnold said.
“I couldn’t be prouder of them. We had five or six players who were 20 or younger that performed very well.
“I thought we should have got at least a draw tonight. Apart from the first two minutes I thought we were just as good as Guangzhou tonight, if not better.”
Asked about the performance of some of his younger brigade against Guangzhou, Arnold said: “They have given me a few headaches.
“I wanted those headaches probably two months ago but they didn’t give them to me then.
“Tonight I thought Aaron Calver was outstanding at centre-back, Brandon O Neill, Riley Woocdock did well for his first game in a long while,” the Sky Blues boss said.
“Young George Blackwood, [Chris] Naumoff and Andrew [Hoole], so a lot of youngsters out there. When you look at that, then the future is bright for Sydney.”