Deft managing at a crucial point in the game was the difference in a nervy and often controversial match between Shanghai East Asia and the visiting Tianjin Sonjiang which the home side won 3-0.
Cheered on by the relatively large crowd that were in attendance – including at least a hundred Shenhua fans standing side by side with the East Asia ultras. They were described as “brain dead” by some Shenhua fans on Weibo, for supporting Shenhua’s city rivals, but praised by others for their support of Shanghainese football legend Xu Genbao.
The home side had to keep their heads amidst some farcical refereeing and sweltering conditions but ultimately came good at a critical time in the season. With other results having gone their way over the weekend, suddenly East Asia have a seven point lead at the top with only seven games left to play in China League One.
Having looked to set the tempo early on, East Asia got off to the best possible start when with six minutes played, Lv Wenjun’s harmless effort at goal was deflected in off Sui Weijie after the Tianjin keeper slipped over whilst making what should have been a routine save.
As absurd as the opening goal was, things got even more surreal soon afterwards when Ransford Addo and Aleksander Rodic were both shown red cards for what could best be described as a little bit of hand bags between two committed players in a high stakes game.
It was a ridiculous decision and the astounded look on the Songjiang captain’s face as he trudged off said it all. Both sides attempted to protest but the referee who hadn’t shown a single yellow card before the incident and had previously let a number of punishing tackles go by without blowing his whistle was unmoved.
With both sides’ momentum halted, the game suddenly became a nervy affair as the two teams tried to find any weaknesses in each other’s readjusted formations as East Asia moved midfielder Wang Jiajie into defence to team up with Bruno Camacho whilst a now striker-less Tianjin pushed Rong Yu further up the pitch to give them an attacking outlet.
As halftime loomed, East Asia should have doubled their lead but having been played into the box by Wu Lei, Lv tried to bring the ball onto his right foot instead of hitting the ball first time and in doing so, rushed his shot and fired it straight into Sui’s chest.
The cagey back-and-forth probing continued well into the second half and it seemed like this would continue for the rest of the game until East Asia’s manager, Jiang Binyao made an excellent tactical substitution by bringing Sun Kai on at left back for Cui Huikang and shifted Wang Shenchao along to centerback, thus restoring Wang Jiajie back into the midfield.
The effect was almost immediate as East Asia now had an extra attacking presence in midfield and the momentum shifted decisively to the hosts.
Indeed Wang could have scored on the seventy-six minute mark after the ball fell to him during a penalty box melee, but as Sui lay on the floor and with the Tianjin goal gapping, the midfielder’s instinctive toe poke looped agonizingly over the bar and Songjiang remained in the game- but only just.
However Wang redeemed himself minutes later when he collected a misplaced Tianjin pass in his own half and brought the ball thirty yards down the pitch before drawing the away team’s defenders towards him and then immediately releasing a now unmarked Wu with a perfect through ball.
One soft touch later and the East Asia playmaker had taken the ball into the box and cockily waited for Sui to commit himself before stroking the ball to the right of the keeper.
It was a decisive blow for Tianjin, who had the wind irreversibly taken out of the sails and although their goalkeeper continued to roar at them from the back, the rest of the visiting team seemed to give up after the second goal.
Gleefully exploiting his opponents’ lethargy, Lv then got his second goal of the game with a minute left of regular time when he out hustled a Songjiang defender for possession and skipped into the penalty box before calmly dinking it past Sui to make it 3-0 and the referee, so clearly determined to be the star of the show, blew the full-time whistle soon afterwards.
Tellingly, a number of Tianjin players refused to shake hands with the match officials but regardless of the controversy, East Asia were ultimately good value for their win and deserved the three points after keeping their guests under control for the entirety of the game.
In remarkable scenes afterwards, the players then took a euphoric curtain call with both Shenhua and their own fans, before Xu Genbao, East Asia’s owner but also a league winning manager with Shenhua rushed across the pitch to salute supporters of his old club as well.
With their next four games at home, there is the possibility that East Asia can now seal their destiny before their next away game in Harbin in late September but it won’t be easy and will certainly require a lot of the fight that the home side showed on Sunday night.
In other CL1 results, Hunan Xiangtao lost 1-0 to Hohhot Dongjin in a shock result that moved the latter out of the relegation zone. Shenzhen Ruby fell further behind in the promotion chase after losing 2-1 to Chengdu Blades whilst Chongqing Lifan drew 0-0 away to Beijing Institute of Technology.