There are many things about this match that make it an “Only in the Chinese Super League” special edition, truly unusual circumstances. For starters, this cup final was played just days before a major international game, meaning each side wasn’t able to hold a full training session until the day before the match. Typically, making it to a cup final involves a difficult road, but for these two sides, it just meant winning two matches (yet the winner gets automatic entry into the Asian Champions League, whereas Liaoning, who braved a 30 match season, will have to go through qualifying, more on that another day though). There’s the fact a decision wasn’t made about where the match would be held until less than three weeks before it was played. Finally, and strangest of all, the match involved two managers who are highly unlikely to be with their side next season.
All that said, this was a decent display of football, a well played, competitive match that offered plenty of enjoyment for the neutral fan. While it didn’t seem like many locals in Hefei came out for the match, both sets of fans made the trip in large numbers and it definitely made it feel like a cup final.
Shandong went on the attack right from the start and in the 2nd minute, Antar headed a Zhou Haibin cross into the path of Han Peng, who knocked it past the keeper to give Shandong an early lead. It was a nice goal and a great start for Luneng, who came out all guns blazing. Unfortunately for them, their focus seemed to be a bit too much on offense and 10 minutes later , a nice, touch lob split the Shandong defense and found a rushing Wang Xinxin, for a one-on-one with the keeper. Wang had plenty of time and slipped an easy shot past the keeper to equalize. In the 32nd minute, some good passing freed up Hu Rentian, but Shandong keeper Yang Cheng was up to the task.
In the 2nd half, Shandong looked the better side from the start, dominating possession and chances. First it was a cross that found Han Peng, though his header was right at the keeper. Next, Wang Tong was able to beat the Tianjin offside trap and looked to be in all alone on the keeper, but the ball was just out of his reach. Tianjin had a few decent counterattacks, it often seemed like they only had Yu Dabao playing offense, often going one against three or four.
Yet it was Tianjin that would break the deadlock. A 61st minute free kick was sent to the backpost by Li Benjian and was headed in by Yu to give his side the eventual match winner. It was a goal that came against the run of play over the previous 15 minutes and sunk Shandong. Up by one, instead of sitting back, the Tianjin attack was enlivened. Yu was by far the most impressive player on the pitch, going around two defenders only to be stopped by a desperate keeper, then laying off a ball to a wide open Hu, who was only prevented from scoring by a last minute play by defender Zheng Zheng.
As the minutes ticked away, Shandong’s attack was struggling to find the mojo it had earlier in the match. The side was more than a little desperate and it showed as passes seemed to be forced and players weren’t on the same page. It didn’t help that they were trying to play high balls into the box against a team with two central defenders who are very strong in the air. Also, Li Weifeng’s constant time wasting tactics certainly had to frustrate the players.
When the referee’s final whistle sounded, Tianjin fans started lighting flares and the celebrations began. This is Tianjin’s first ever professional title (not counting their winning Divisin 2 in 1998) and their first Chinese football title since 1981, when they were national champions. Despite a bad run of form at the end of the Chinese Super League season and all the rumors flying around about the manager and a number of players leaving (reasons why both your correspondents agreed Shandong would win), the players were able to forget about all that and give a command performance.
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