Harbin Yiteng (4th) – Shanghai East Asia (1st)
Uh-oh. Having fallen to Wuhan Zull in a ninety minute theatrical production of a football match, now its time for East Asia to pick themselves up and take on Harbin in the latter’s final home game of the season. East Asia should have been promoted by now but things could become legitimately problematic for the league leaders as they take on an unpredictable but dangerous Harbin team.
For East Asia, goals have suddenly become a problem (they have only found the back of the net once in the last three games) and they will need to rediscover their scoring form if they are going to overcome Yiteng. Luis Carlos Cabezas has been absolutely terrible for several games in a row and the stubborn faith in the Colombian by manager Jiang Bingyao is a worrying sign of a coach running out of ideas. Wu Lei and Lv Wenjun need to also find goals and more crucially stay on their feet whilst the riot act needs to be read to the entire dressing room in a bid to get everyone playing like they did in the first half of the season. None of this is encouraging for the league leaders who implausibly are choking at the worst possible time.
Yet Harbin, another side with a squad to beat all-comers but the capacity to fall apart at a moment’s notice, are in an even more dire situation. Having once looked formidable and with an impressive home record, suddenly Yiteng have imploded and three losses in the last five including a shock 3-2 defeat to Beijing Baxy, the league’s bottom side, have now put the Northerners in a tough fix.
In the reverse fixture, Harbin gave East Asia real problems with their muscular tactics and although Shanghai held on, it was the first time that the once swaggering league leaders looked vulnerable. Now coming to Harbin, East Asia should expect the same treatment but equally, with Harbin desperately needing a win, Yiteng will have to come forward in droves- which will play perfectly into the away side’s counter attacking style.
It remains to be seen what will happen in this game- the simple fact that Yiteng are at home and can find goals from both midfield and upfront (especially via the boot of Ricardo Steer) means they will start as nominal favorites but the game will certainly be close and if lesser teams can overcome Harbin, so can East Asia.
Wuhan Zull (2nd) – Tianjin Songjiang (5th)
Having beaten the league leaders in the last round, Zull will now have to keep things going against a Tianjin side that are within a knockout punch of making a last-ditch run for a promotion spot. This makes for a compelling game. If the visitors win, their dreams of promotion remain alive but should they lose, Tianjin are effectively done for the season.
Making it trickier for Songjiang is its woeful away form- they have only won three of their last ten away games and all of them were against sides from the lower half of the table. This means an already tough game will now be even tougher and the pressure will be heaped on a side that rarely concede goals but also struggle to fashion some of their own (they have scored the second fewest goals all season- 25, which is only two more than relegation threatened Hohhot Dongjin).
That said, Wuhan are not going to destroy teams and rely on their own backline to keep things in their favor before sneaking the odd goal or two. It’s unlikely therefore that there will be many goals in this encounter but this fixture will still be crucial in deciding how many teams can still challenge for promotion in the final three weeks of the season.
Chongqing Lifan (3rd) – Shenyang Shenbei (14th)
Lifan remain the biggest enigma of the league and their cavalier attitude has been great for neutrals but life shortening for the local supporters. Their last game against Shenzhen Ruby was classic Lifan- leading at halftime through their array of attacking options, Chongqing then managed to ship four goals in the second half and lose 5-3 as their defense fell to pieces around them. With time running out, the home side need to find some form lest the goal scoring antics of Brendan Santalab and company be for nothing.
However the other dog in the fight won’t be there to make up numbers and Shenbei, for all their erratic form are still out of the relegation zone by a single point and even a draw would be priceless in a battle for the drop that has dragged five teams (Beijing Baxy, BIT, Guangdong Sunray Cave, Shenbei and Hohhot Dongjin) into a desperate struggle to stay out of the bottom two places. Its going to be tough- the visitors have only won one away game all season so if Shenbei are going to do it, they need their extremely well-traveled Brazilian forward Jose Duarte (who actually played for Lifan in 2009) to get himself on the score sheet at least once.
With so much on the line, Lifan should be nervous despite being strong favorites in this encounter. Should they slip up- which is possible as Shenyang have duped several teams this season- and results elsewhere go against them, their promotion campaign might suddenly go from possible to improbable very quickly.