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Campioni! Late Gao Lin strike seals CSL title for Evergrande

Guangzhou Evergrande 1-0 Liaoning Whowin

CSL Round 29

Gao Lin 90′

A fantastic goal in the final minute of normal time ensured that Guangzhou Evergrande retained their CSL title with a victory at home against relegation-threatened Liaoning Whowin. As it turned out, a draw would have been enough thanks to Jiangsu Sainty’s inability to find the net against Beijing Guoan in Nanjing, but the winner, and Gao’s delirious celebration, were just what the huge crowd in Tianhe Stadium needed to get properly into party mode.

Ignore the blatantly untrue official attendance of 39,989 – there must have been at least another 10,000 present. The unusual afternoon kick-off and local media hype seemed to have attracted a great number of non-regulars, as this was certainly the hardest game to get into that this correspondent has ever attended. Tickets had been sold out by Friday morning, and the normally ever-present touts were notable by their absence an hour and a half before kick-off. We eventually managed to acquire tickets just before the game started, unprecedentedly paying almost four times the face value (and that was after seeing some fans pay out even more).

It was well worth it though, for the atmosphere and occasion obviously, but also for the amusingly over-the-top and haphazardly choreographed pre-planned celebrations after the final whistle. The match itself was largely unspectacular fare apart from the finale. Liaoning needed a point to ensure their own survival in the CSL, and while they fielded quite an attacking line-up, and Yu Hanchao, Brandán and Trifunović intermittently menaced the Evergrande defense to begin with, they only had one shot on target all game and spent most of the match very much on the back foot.

The best chance of the opening few minutes was the impressively robust Huang Bowen’s powerful shot from distance in the thirteenth, which was deflected just wide, but there was little sustained challenge from Evergrande in the first period apart from a five minute patch about half way through. Huang had been set up for his effort by Gao Lin on the left, and about ten minutes later as Guangzhou countered after a rare Liaoning chance, Gao this time brought the ball into the box and had a go himself. Zhang Lu could only parry the ball straight into the path of Jiang Ning, but the striker failed to connect and saw his last chance of glory go begging.

Moments later, Conca put Cleo through for a nicely taken shot that Zhang again could not hold. Cleo connected with the rebound from very close range, and the fans in our section leaped to their feet cheering, but in vain as the ball had gone wide of the left post. Conca had an shot deflected wide himself before Lippi suddenly and surprisingly got spooked by the opposition’s forward line, and decide to change things around well before half-time, much as he had done last week against Jiangsu Sainty. The unfortunate Li Jianhua was again hauled off very early, being substituted for Feng Junyang, but in a reverse of last week’s changes, Lippi moved from 2 centre backs to 3, bringing Paulão on for Li’s replacement last week, Jiang Ning.

The changes were immediately followed by perhaps Liaoning’s best chance of the match when Yang Xu sent a lovely curling pass with the outside of his right boot into the box ahead of Yu Hanchao, who connected well but sent it over the bar. Little of note happened between then and the break, bar a couple of half-chances for Conca, and Huang picking up the first booking of the game for a professional foul on Grozdanovski.

Liaoning replaced Brandán with Zhao Junzhe at half-time, and he picked up their first yellow card three minutes after coming on for a challenge on Conca just outside the box. The Argentinian wasted the resulting free kick, and although next 20 minutes or so were almost exclusively played in the northerners’ half, a combination of poor crossing and a box packed with white shirts meant the hosts had little in the way of clear-cut chances to show for it. Cleo did put the ball in the net in the 54th minute, but the linesman had correctly spotted Gao offside in the build-up and no goal was given. Centre-back Paulão tried his hand at a couple of pot-shots, but nothing was working out for the Cantonese side.

As the mid-way point of the half was reached, and doubt began to set in, Liaoning grew bolder and even started making the occasional foray upfield themselves. A push on Yu Hanchao outside the box with a quarter of an hour to go led to a free-kick put just over the woodwork by Zhao, who was probably the visitors’ most impressive player of the second half. Just before this Lippi had replaced Huang Bowen with Rong Hao, and he combined with Conca in the 81st minute to set up Zheng Zhi, free in the centre of the box, for a great chance, but the captain snatched at it and sent it over the bar.

Two minutes later a Conca free kick had our section of fans prematurely celebrating again, but his strike had merely gone agonisingly close. In the 89th minute, he collected the ball after a scramble in the box, instigated by some good work by Rong up the right, and got round a couple of defenders before scooping a shot at the bottom left hand corner. Zhang Lu got to this one, but there was absolutely nothing he could do about Gao Lin’s winner a minute later.

Lurking in the D, Gao controlled a pass from Conca with his right foot, before spinning and unleashing an unstoppable drive with his left into the top-right corner of the net. The match-winner whipped off his shirt and, oblivious to his team-mates, ran screaming up one touchline and then down the other, while the entire stadium went utterly berserk with him. He gets a hard time on this site sometimes, but that was as good a goal as you could ask to settle a league campaign, and I feel he deserved this moment of glory given his improvement since Lippi came in.

Liaoning, now third from bottom, play second from bottom Shanghai Shenxin at home in their final match next weekend in a straight up fight for survival; if Liaoning lose, they will go down and Shenxin will stay up. It’s simply an astounding collapse for a team that finished third last season, and even made it to the FA Cup semis this year. Guangzhou travel to third-placed Beijing for a meaningless match between two teams whose players will no doubt be satisfied with their final positions in the table and looking forward to their holidays (or cup final).

Guangzhou Evergrande: 22 Li Shuai, 32 Sun Xiang, 6 Feng Xiaoting, 14 Li Jianhua (7 Feng Junyang 26′), 28 Kim Young-Gwon, 10 Zheng Zhi, 42 Huang Bowen (4 Rong Hao 72′), 15 D. Conca, 29 Gao Lin, 21 Jiang Ning (3 Paulão 27′), 9 Cleo

Liaoning Whowin: 1 Zhang Lu, 40 Kim Yoo-Jin, 22 Wang Liang, 5 Yang Shanping, 20 Yu Hanchao, 2 Ding Jie, 36 Zhang Ye, 19 P. Brandán (9 Zhao Junzhe 46′), 10 V. Grozdanovski (6 Yang Yu 89′), 18 Yang Xu, 14 M. Trifunović

Irish Guangzhou Evergrande fan, following them since I fortuitously found myself living next to Tianhe Stadium in 2011, reporting on them for Wild East Football since 2012.



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