CHINA - Guangzhou Evergrande face a serious test of their resolve this week after a triple player suspension and touchline ban for coach Marcello Lippi loosened their grip on the AFC Champions League title.
A 1-0 quarter-final first-leg deficit against Western Sydney Wanderers does not seem insurmountable at Guangzhou's Tianhe stadium, but disciplinary woes have complicated the Chinese champions' task on Wednesday.
Last week's red cards to Zhang Linpeng and Gao Lin have robbed Guangzhou of two of their most dependable players, while Lippi earned a touchline ban for storming onto the pitch in protest at the late dismissals.
The Chinese champions will be further weakened by the loss of Korean centre-back Kim Young-Gwan, who is ineligible after picking up his second yellow card of the knock-out rounds in Sydney.
Zhang and Kim have started every game for Guangzhou in this season's competition, while Gao has played in eight of their nine matches.
However, they will take comfort from playing the second leg of the quarter-final at their home stadium, which has become something of a fortress for Lippi's team.
Wanderers head coach Tony Popovic remains wary of the Chinese club, who still have former Italian internationals Alessandro Diamanti and Alberto Gilardino available.
"There is no one getting carried away in our dressing room," Popovic said. "We have a slight advantage but we are just in front at half-time.
"Of course we anticipate a really difficult game, but they go home knowing they anticipate a difficult game as well." The Chinese Super League side are trying to become the first club since Saudi Arabia's Al Ittihad in 2005 to successfully defend the Asian title.
The winners will face either last year's runners-up, FC Seoul, or 2009 champions Pohang Steelers in the semi-finals.
Their all-Korean quarter-final is still very much in the balance ahead of Wednesday's return match at Seoul World Cup Stadium after a goalless draw in the first leg last week.
In the west, UAE side Al Ain will take a 2-0 lead into their showdown in Saudi Arabia with Al Ittihad on Tuesday, while another Saudi club, Al Hilal, will try to defend a narrow 1-0 advantage when they visit 2011 champions Al Sadd in Qatar.