Tianjin Teda came to the home of the defending champions intent on not conceding a goal and surely went home satisfied with their night’s work after the match finished 0-0.
Having lost only once in the past eight games, and that away to Guangzhou Evergrande’s challengers for the title Jiangsu Sainty, Tianjin came as a form team.
Despite the 0-0 scoreline though, this was quite an entertaining match, certainly much more so than Guangzhou Evergrande’s midweek 1-0 cup win over Liaoning Whowin at the same venue.
The reported 38,700 attendance could well have been correct for a change – it was probably the smallest crowd I’ve seen at a league match in the past two years, and there certainly seemed to be at least 10,000 fewer there than at, say, the game against Shanghai Shenhua to which officially 39,997 people came – but the fans were in fine voice as usual.
Lippi had made several changes to his line up for the cup fixture, but here mostly reverted to the team that had beaten Changchun Yantai away last weekend, with Kim Young-Gwon, making his second start after his debut in the cup game, replacing Feng Xiaoting at centre-back, and Huang Jiaqiang, in his first start for the team, coming in at right-back for Cho Won-Hee, who had also played midweek. Tianjin made two changes of their own from the team that beat Hangzhou Greentown 2-1 on their own turf in their last league match, with He Yang and Liao Bochao replacing Nie Tao and Hui Jiakang.
The opening quarter of the game was a very cagey affair, with Guangzhou’s wingers Muriqui and Gao Lin situated further back into midfield than usual, and neither team very willing to press forward, though Tianjin did have what amounted to their best chance of the half in the 8th minute, a tame effort from a difficult angle by Mao Biao that was comfortably saved by Yang Jun.
As the half wore on however, and Guangzhou settled into the game, Tianjin more or less set up camp in and around their own box, helped in their defensive endeavours by an overly lenient referee; even though Guangzhou players were dragged down or bundled over just outside the box on 4 separate occasions (Li Weifeng being an unsurprisingly egregious offender), none of these fouls were deemed worthy of a booking.
This was all the more surprising given that Zheng Zhi had been booked as early as the 6th minute for what looked like an innocuous handball in the middle of the pitch with his arm by his side. Mao Biao did get a yellow card for encroachment while in the wall for one of the resulting free kicks however.
Conca and Huang Bowen took two of these each, with Huang’s being the better efforts, drawing smart parries from Yang Qipeng in the Tianjin goal.
Conca had a couple of other half-chances, and Cleo had a header on target saved (about the only good thing he did all night), but the best chance of the half was Gao Lin’s 42nd minute dipping shot from outside the box, from a pass by Muriqui, which Yang did well to keep out of the bottom right-hand corner.
The 2nd half started in much the same vein. Very soon after the restart, Gao Lin sent a good low cross from the right for a great chance for Cleo in the centre, who attempted to backheel it into the goal but instead missed the ball completely. Either that, or it was a clever dummy to absolutely no one. It was only one in a series of misses and blunders from the reportedly disgruntled striker, who nonetheless lasted the whole 90 minutes. He was not the only culprit though, as both of the other South American players in Guangzhou’s line-up had their fair share of misses, with Conca fading noticeably in the 2nd half.
A Tianjin player finally went into the book for foul play in the 52nd minute; He Yang for a cynical hack on Muriqui after a nice bit of dribbling down the left from the Brazilian. The pattern of the match started to change somewhat after the 54th minute however, when Mao Biao was replaced by Chen Tao. He had a couple of shots and generally gave Tianjin more of an attacking threat, but when they broke forward, it was usually only with 2 or 3 players, and the gameplan remained primarily to shut Guangzhou out.
With just over half an hour to go, a rare appearance by Huang Jiachang was brought to a premature end when he was injured near the Tianjin box. While he was being tended to, Chen Tao received a yellow card for reasons unclear. Huang was replaced by Li Jianhua at right-back; not his natural side, but he looked comfortable enough. Shortly afterwards, Li Weifeng went through the back of Muriqui as he was bearing down on goal, and the referee had no option but to award a penalty to Guangzhou and book the Tianjin defender, who despite his protests was lucky to only be receiving his first yellow.
Conca’s penalty was just to the right of centre and quite low; the ball smacked off either Yang Qipeng’s stomach or groin and went back out into play, leaving the keeper scuttling about his 6-yard box like a crab until the ball went into touch and he dropped to the ground for lengthy treatment. Much of the rest of the game was spent watching the stretcher-bearers running on and off as various Tianjin players collapsed in dubious circumstances. This blatant time-wasting reached its nadir near the end of the 90 minutes, when Sjoerd Ars fell down on his… bottom, requiring a visit from the stretcher-bearers, apparently due to the ball bouncing into him at no great speed.
Gao Lin was replaced by Jiang Ning with a quarter of an hour to go, which I found a bit disappointing as he had been having a pretty good game, and there seemed to be better candidates to swap out on the pitch. All of Lippi’s substitutions were like for like, Qin Sheng later coming on for Huang Bowen.
When not watching Tianjin players feigning injury, the rest of the match mostly consisted of increasingly desperate attacks by Guangzhou. Although there were a few almighty scrambles in the Tianjin box, most notably in the 76th minute when the right and left posts were hit in rapid succession, too many attacks ended with hopeful crosses into the box that were cleared without posing a threat.
Despite being roared on by a vibrant home crowd through seven minutes of injury time, Guangzhou were unable to find a way through the packed Tianjin defence, and the game ended scoreless. With Jiangsu Sainty winning 3-0 away to Henan Construction, Guangzhou’s lead at the top of the CSL has been cut to 3 points; perhaps this title race will go right to the wire after all.