A late goal for Lucas Barrios made it 3-2 on the night for Guangzhou Evergrande against a resilient Shandong Luneng. The deserved if slightly fortunate victory put the Cantonese side back on top of table and in a very strong position heading into their next match against second-placed Jiangsu Sainty.
Guangzhou, maintaining the attacking impetus of recent weeks, lined up in a similar formation to their 3-5-2 against Al-Ittihad earlier in the week, but with Conca or Zheng Zhi regularly joining Cleo and Gao Lin up front to make it effectively 3-4-3. The backline was radically different, in part due to the suspensions of Zhang Linpeng and Tang Dechao after their antics against Qingdao. Kim Young-Gwan, Qin Sheng, and Cho Won-Hee were employed as a makeshift back trio.
Sun Xiang and Li Jianhao replaced Rong Hao and Feng Junyang as a more defensively minded pair of wing-backs, but the duo had plenty of opportunities to display their attacking abilities in the first half hour or so. The Jinan side, in a flat 4-4-2, were content to wait for opportunities to counter, so Guangzhou controlled possession from the start, with plenty of nice build-up play though with little in the way of clear-cut chances early on.
The home side went in front in the 25th minute though, when Conca spotted Cleo’s run in the box, and curled the ball in low for the big man to flick past Geng Xiaofeng. Cleo had cleverly laid the groundwork for this chance a few minutes earlier by sliding his boots into the opposition keeper’s face while challenging for a low ball in the box.
Cleo set up Gao Lin and Zheng Zhi for good chances in the next few minutes, but one was judged offside and the other shot straight at the keeper. Then, against the balance of play, Shandong struck back, Hao Junmin taking the Evergrande back-line apart with a through ball from inside his own half on the right. Qin’s artless tackle from behind wasn’t enough to prevent Ortigoza from laying the ball on for Macena, who picked his spot while Cho looked on helplessly. It was the Brazilian striker’s ninth goal in nine games since joining the Jinan club.
After conceding the goal, Guangzhou endured a period of fierce pressure from the visitors, largely inspired by the impressive Hao Junmin, who set up their best chances and had a couple of decent shots himself. Despite the stopgap defence looking very shaky at times, the southern side held out and reasserted themselves somewhat before the break.
At half-time the novel formation was abandoned, and Cho was replaced by Barrios, who joined Gao and Cleo up front, with Sun and Li pushing back. The match reverted to the pattern seen through most of the first half, with Evergrande applying sustained pressure, and Luneng launching the occasional counter-attack, usually through Hao.
Shandong made an attacking substitution in the 54th minute, Han Peng coming on for full-back Yuan WeiWei. However, they found themselves on the back foot just a minute later, when Huang Bowen crossed in from the right and found the head of Zheng Zhi, who did well to place the ball just inside the left post.
Barrios was slow to get into the game, losing the ball to end a few of the subsequent attacks. The southern side were also the recipients of a few dodgy offside calls, but to be fair the officials shared the bad decisions around quite equally between the two teams over the course of the game; a masterclass in refereeing this was not.
Shandong again scored against the run of play in the 67th minute. Deep in the opposition half, Barrios hit a ball straight into an onrushing defender and in the resulting break, Hao found Ortigoza, who played a one-two with Macena to set up Han Peng to justify his introduction with a goal. He was also helped by a massive deflection off Qin Sheng, which left keeper Li Shuai with no chance.
Cleo and Sun Xiang were soon after replaced by Feng Junyang and Jiang Ning in the hunt for a winner. In the 79th minute, Qin finally received his customary booking for a hack on Ortigoza when he was running free down the left wing.
Two minutes later Evergrande took the lead for the third and final time, as Barrios headed home powerfully from a perfect Gao Lin cross. Shandong didn’t seem to have much left in the tank, and Guangzhou continued to dominate what play there was left; there was, of course, plenty of the usual tedious acting and timewasting (which did though lead to some amusing handbags between Hao and Conca and Barrios at the corner flag) to be sat through before the final whistle went.
While Guangzhou completely dominated possession and played some nice football, they didn’t really create that many good chances, so while they deserved the win, they should be thankful that Shandong didn’t find the net more than once when they were all over them towards the end of the first half. They did well to come back from two levelers though, and thanks to Jiangsu Sainty’s weekend loss to the revitalised Qingdao Jonoon, are now three points clear of their title rivals ahead of their clash after the international break; the pressure is certainly now on the Nanjing team in these closing stages of the season.
Guangzhou Evergrande: 22 Li Shuai, 32 Sun Xiang (21 Jiang Ning 72′), 14 Li Jianhua, 28 Kim Young-Gwon, 16 Cho Won-Hee (18 L. Barrios 46′), 10 Zheng Zhi, 42 Huang Bowen, 15 D. Conca, 8 Qin Sheng, 29 Gao Lin, 9 Cleo (7 Feng Junyang 67′)
Shandong Luneng: 12 Geng Xiaofeng, 3 Du Wei, 5 Wang Qiang, 15 Yuan Weiwei (9 Han Peng 54′), 31 Simão Junior, 17 Hao Junmin, 7 Cui Peng, 11 Wang Tong, 36 Wu Xinghan (24 Lü Zheng 69′), 29 Gilberto Macena, 33 J. Ortigoza (21 Liu Binbin 86′)