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Pub Talk: Guangzhou’s in the house

This week mixes it up as Guangzhou correspondent Chris Atkins drops into the pub, with Bcheng posted missing in the national week holiday madness. Naturally Guangzhou is number one on the agenda, along with Ultra’s tired old food jokes, boring old Guoan and Shenhua are sidelined. Much to discuss during a bad week for the Cantonese giants – knocked both out of the ACL and off top spot of the CSL. What’s going on asks Ultra, as Chris reveals all. Elsewhere foreign player calibre is talked about, as is Shenhua since Shanghai is represented in the pub. But nothing much happening there really.  All told,  it’s really about time to get excited – crunch games at top and bottom are reviewed as the league enters its final straight. We won’t miss a minute of the action here at , so pull up a stool and join in the pub banter in the comments section.

Shanghai Ultra: This week in the pub, bowing at last to a rowdy southern mob outside shouting abuse and rude words through the windows, we have our new man covering Guangzhou, Chris Atkins. Welcome Chris!

Chris Atkins: Hello there. It’s a pleasure to join you for this pub chat this afternoon. First let me say, I hope they haven’t been too rowdy – I know the Cantonese have a reputation for being fairly fierce. Hope you are well and enjoying a good National holiday week

S: Yeah, just some scoundrels chucking dog and cat bones in at myself and B. In case our readers are wondering, Bcheng is off the radar this week, I assume he’s on holiday somewhere – having a turtle shell on your back is handy for saving on hotel bills. So Chris, why don’t you tell the massive a bit about yourself and how you came to get involved in the weird and wonderful world of Chinese football?

C: Well, it was a bit by chance really. I studied Chinese at university and spent a bit of time over here, up in Beijing at that point. Then, at a loss with what to do with myself, I turned to blogging and ended up getting work as a freelance football writer. Obviously, being freelance means I am fairly easy-going regarding where I am based, so I have followed my girlfriend back out here. I have always maintained an interest and upped it a while back when I knew I would return. As you say, there is always something slightly bizarre occurring.

S: Indeed – that’s why we have a “bizarre” column on which is not lacking material. You also have some other sites of your own right? Care to let everyone know about them?

C: Indeed. I run The Elastico with a colleague based in the USA, which looks at youth talents coming through across the world, and then I am also the Editor of the English interface of Sambafoot – a Brazilian football news portal. So, feel free to take a look!

S: And you are also behind a Chinese football Twitter account I believe, right?

C: Yes, correct. It can be found at @china_football. I try to update it as much as I can, with plenty of references to . But, as you see, sometimes I can be a bit busy with so many projects. So, just prod me if you would like information on anything

S: Excellent stuff Chris. So, Pub talk admittedly does cover Shenhua and Guoan a lot, but this time we have you at the bar today so lets turn our attention south without further ado – did you expect Evergrande to be in second place with only four games to go of the CSL?

C: Not at all and, to be honest, I don’t think anyone did. They are in danger of coming away from the season empty-handed after fighting on three fronts. Yet, conversely, they could easily end up as double winners. They need to put the Champions League behind them and refocus. The match with Jiangsu looks to be crucial now.

S: Yeah I have to say last weekend’s results were huge. Qingdao beating Evergrande I would have bet my shirt against that – but that’s just what happened. What went wrong?

C: That match was an unmitigated disaster. The focus clearly wasn’t there, just a few days before the Al Ittihad tie, but it shouldn’t be forgotten that Qingdao have improved dramatically in the last month or two. Evergrande lost their heads when the pressure came on. Having got back to 1-1, Tang Dechao gets himself sent-off in ridiculous fashion, before Zhang Linpeng saw red in injury-time for kicking an opponent. Stupidity. Lippi must have been furious

S: It’s easily the most shocking result of the season – everyone was talking about it at Hongkou last Friday. Shenhua also lost in Qingdao, admittedly not as big a shock, but it shows how competitive the CSL can be.

C: Yes, it certainly isn’t a league to bet on with any conviction. It also shows the value of a goalscorer – Bruno Meneghel has eight in ten games since arriving and has changed their season

S: Yeah they were my pre-season favourites to go down, but for the second time in succession, it looks as if they are going to mess up my forecasts once again.

C: They looked all but down early in the campaign. Even if they should fail, they deserve great credit for their fightback. Talking of the Hongkou on Friday, Henan are in dire shape. I didn’t expect that!

S: Yeah. They looked very poor indeed against Shenhua, we should have won more comfortably but Shenhua are always a team who struggle against smaller sides. Surprised Henan are looking odds on to go down, but then again their foreign section looks a bit anonymous. Had you heard of Netto what with your South American connection?

C: No, not really. But, he is a popular chap up there after three decent seasons. Adailton I knew more about, but he doesn’t seem to have helped the defence too much. The two Zambians are good players though. Chansa has not set the world alight, but Katongo certainly can’t be blamed if they go down.

S: Katongo had a spell in Germany I think but he’s not of the CSL Foreigner 2.0 version which we have seen come to China this past year or so.

C: No, certainly not. But, then neither are the likes of Danalache or Ars, and look how they are getting on! Henan don’t have the worst foreign players in the league, but there is a poor Chinese player base behind it. Together that equals problems, I guess.

S: Yeah I think you hit the nail on the head. Speaking of Danalache, I think he is just 3 goals away from breaking the CSL goalscoring record. If Sainty win the league, it will be in no small part due to him.

C: Incredible. I keep expecting his scoring to dry up, but it hasn’t. He has dragged that team to the title if they achieve it. Miles clear in the top-scorer race, isn’t he? Only Utaka, who has also been outstanding, can claim to be anywhere near.

S: Yeah I think he’s on 23 goals, Li Jinyu’s record with Shandong a few years back is 26. So it’s tight. I’d love to know how much Danalache is earning. I bet its a fraction of Muriqui, never mind Drogba or Anelka.

C: You would have to think so. Jiangsu’s entire squad has a very ‘low-budget’ feel to it, so it would be an incredible achievement to win the league. In fact, just to finish second would be exceptional given their rivals’ spending

S: definitely. Myself and Bcheng have argued for a while now that Sainty are pretty much a model team for the CSL – bring in foreigners who will actually make a difference rather than splashing unsustainable amounts on huge names. Much as I like getting the chance to watch Drogba play at Hongkou, it’s not how I would do it if I were in charge.

C: No, exactly. I’m with you on this one. There is no way, in any reality, that Shenhua are getting value for money having Anelka, Drogba and Moreno. It makes Evergrande’s outlay look tame. You are right. The important thing is squad balance and team unity. Indeed, Jiangsu have been somewhat the anti-Shenhua this season.

S: They are. The other thing is Shenhua aren’t even getting much of a crowd boost. They got a few near-capacity crowds the first few games Drogba was in. But its worn off pretty quickly. Maybe it’s because Shenhua’s season has been effectively over for at least the last 3-4 games. Maybe it will be different next year.

C: Could well happen. Needs to be backed up with competitive performances. The squad needs a reshuffle with more strength in defence. Joel, unfortunately, will be a likely casualty with an Asian federation defender brought in. Or, that’s what I would do!

S: Joel is an excellent pro and he’s been a good buy, but for reasons which are not really his fault at all, I can’t see him staying at Shenhua at all next season. The team transfer policy is woefully out of balance. It’s clear Anelka, Drogba and Moreno have to be the three non-asian players, that means Brazilian defender Moises has to sit out. I suspect Moises and Griffiths will both leave in the close season, hopefully Shenhua will see sense and buy a proper defender with their Asian slot, instead of putting a small midfielder at centre half (Yu Tao)

C: Spot on. I’d take Joel over Anelka due to his professionalism, but we both know that will never happen. I’m not sure why Moreno was bought, given Anelka playing deeper and Moreno being forced to play an unfamiliar role to accommodate it

S: Yeah there is certainly a case which said Moreno was not really what Shenhua needed. They had a lot of creativity in Anelka and Cao Yunding. Moreno however was a revelation when he first came in. But his performances in the past few games have been rubbish – over-elaborating and farting about on the ball instead of actually doing something useful with it.

C: He’s that type of player. Brilliant or hopeless. Always has been. But, needs to be played as a No. 10 or there is no point. I could talk all day about Batista’s failings as a coach, though. I’m not a fan.

S: Let’s hear what you have to say – I’m not convinced by him either.

C: Anyone who manages Argentina, at home, in the Copa America and wins just one of four games needs questioning. Ironically, it was a similar issue – trying to fit too many forwards into one team.

S: He managed to win the Olympic gold for Argentina right. Should that count for anything?

C: I guess so. But, I think you could have won it with that squad. Riquelme, Messi, Di Maria, Lavezzi, Aguero… Impressive, no?

S: Right that’s what I thought. I mean, even Diego Maradona, who is an incompetent and stupid head coach, managed to do alright with Argentina at the last World Cup.

C: I don’t think those in Argentina were that pleased with a quarter-final exit. They have high standards! But, we are moving away from the CSL here…

S: We are. But lets move back – sort of. We didn’t cover Guangzhou’s exit from the ACL. Your verdict?

C: I think it’s progress. It must not be forgotten in the disappointment that they reached the quarter-finals. They are out because of sloppy defending in Saudi Arabia – though injuries played their part. They must look to build on this, rather than re-build.

S: Yeah. But Gao Lin. What a shocking dive for the penalty. He has something of a reputation as a diver – the proud winner of a award last year, no less.

C: Ha, we both know that Chinese football is awful for diving. Having said that, Al-Ittihad were terrible sports in the first-leg, so I have little sympathy. Gao Lin should be above that, though. He is a very good player on his day. There is already talk of new signings coming from the club. I hope there is no over-reaction.

S: Have you heard anything about who Evergrande want to sign?

C: Well, reports say that domestically Yu Hanchao and Yang Xu from Liaoning are the big targets. Both would add a lot to the squad. Worryingly, though, it is suggested that they want a big-name foreigner, with Kaká being suggested. It seems the opposite of what they need.

S: I for one hope the ridiculous advantage Evergrande have over the rest of the league – the 7 foreign player squad slots instead of 5 – is rescinded. It’s not what Chinese football needs to go forward.

C: I don’t see it happening and the last few weeks have shown why. To play in several competitions needs a bigger squad. I just hope they keep the 3+1 on-the-pitch rule. That makes it fairer. Evergrande have Conca, Muriqui and Barrios, with Cleo likely to leave. They need someone who is happy to play in the league and not be registered for the ACL. Kaká or someone similar’s arrival would see Conca leave, I am sure of it. Not a good move.

S: We shall see. As we know, every name under the sun is linked with the CSL these days so there’s never much point discussing individuals unless there is some solid word saying a move is on the cards. So lets turn to this week’s fixturecard – who have Guangzhou got and how do you see things unfolding this weekend?

C: This week it is Shandong at the Tianhe Stadium on Sunday night and a re-focused Evergrande should win. But, they need to make a statement ahead of the Jiangsu game. A kind of “we’re back”. Across the city, R&F play at Changchun and could virtually secure a Champions League place, tough away trip though.

S: It is. Guoan got themselves right back in ACL contention with a very solid win over lowly Henan in the week though, so I think that is going to goto the wire, Guoan are away to Aerbin this weekend.

C: And Shenhua? What you thinking this week?

S: We are away to Guizhou tomorrow – a very tough match which they home side will be desperate to win to keep up their ACL qualification push.

C: They are terribly out of form, but agreed. Not easy.

S: Yeah, but Shenhua are a friend to out-of-form teams. I still don’t think the team are playing that well for a team which has had so much invested in it. I think Shenhua should use these last few games to play players who will definitely be with the club next season, since we have no chance of grabbing an ACL spot.

C: Logic? Shenhua? You are asking a bit much, my friend.

S: Hahah. Very true. I’m with Steve’s preview on this weekend’s game – a laboured draw.

C: Sounds realistic. A season to forget for the most-part.

S: Very much so. Any other games catch your eye this weekend?

C: It may not be a classic, but Henan-Hangzhou has big consequences at the bottom. A loss for the hosts and they are in big trouble, Hangzhou would then move fairly safe. Also, can Qingdao disrupt a leader again? Jiangsu this week.

S: Can’t see that happening – but look what they did to Evergrande. Hangzhou are back in the mire again – and surely for Henan at least, it really is a must-win.

C: A Henan win and it’s wide open down there. Hangzhou would be safe with a win in this one, I reckon. Shenxin have a difficult game with Tianjin also

S: Shenxin yeah – also looking dangerous. Although they look a much better outfit than Henan – I’ve seen Shenhua play both these teams in the last couple of weeks.

C: After their refusal to try in the dying minutes against R&F, I would be happy to see Shenxin go down. Disgraceful episode and CFA should have made a point. Was never going to happen though.

S: Expecting the CFA to do sensible things is always a bit much unfortunately. So four games left, it’s all to play for, excitement all-round, I think only Shenhua, Tianjin, Changchun and Aerbin really have nothing to play for, everyone else is either in the relegation, championship or ACL picture.

C: Should be exciting. Can’t wait!

S: Yep. Well, that looks about it for this week. Thanks a lot for joining us Chris.

C: No problem at all. Hope the Guangdong army are pleased with my showing!

S: I hope so, they can knock it off and get back to eating endangered species now.

C: All we do down here…

S: Hahah. Cheers to that!

C: Speak to you soon then Cameron, it’s closing time! A pleasure as always.

A leading international commentator on Chinese football frequently quoted by the world's top media. Offers piercing and resolutely honest insights into the bustling crossroads where football, society, economics and politics meet in contemporary China. Based in Shanghai since 2005, observer of the Chinese game since 2000.



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