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Pub Talk: Up and Down

The guys are back in the pub to talk about Guangzhou Evergrande securing the CSL league title, Henan’s relegation, and Beijing Guoan returning to Asia. There’s a bit of a preview of the big match between Liaoning Whowin and Shanghai Shenxin while, as always, they can’t get too far away from the topic of Shanghai Shenhua. Enjoy!

S: Good evening. The wanderer returns!

B: It’s certainly good to be back in the pub. And on a very memorable day for all Guoan fans.

S: Really? Tell us more.

B: Though I’m of the “act like you’ve been there before” state of mind, it was on this day in 2009 that Beijing secured its first ever league title.

S: Oh.

B: So anyways, over the weekend the current CSL season’s races were very much clarified for us all.

S: They were, what an exciting weekend it was. I think the highlight had to be Shandong’s late, late show down at Jinshan beach.

B: Mate, just to show I’m fair, I think the highlight had to be Gao Lin’s 90th minute goal to make Evergrande the CSL’s first ever repeat winner.

S: Yeah – I don’t mean at all to belittle Evergrande’s title win, but everyone knew they were going to win it, and in the end, even if Gao hadn’t scored, they would have still sealed the title.

B: Good point. Yes, Shandong playing themselves to safety was definitely a big part of the weekend. While at the same time, Henan’s loss mean they’re going down to the China League, not really a surprise there as they had very little hope of staying up.

S: Right. Henan had been looking doomed for quite some time. But Qingdao were looking shaky for a while but they are now the CSLs form team and shot up the table. So it shows what can be done. For Henan, its just too late of course. They’ve been a dissapointment. CSL cities need no longer fear for their manhole covers.

B: Yes, I think many fans across the country are happy to see the side go down. It’s not just Guoan, plenty of other side’s away supporters had a rough experience in Zhengzhou.

S: Yeah I’ve heard the stories. They have a fairly solid support base though, theyve been a CSL fixture for the last 4-5 years. I think they will be among the favourites to come back up.

B: Right, I don’t think we’ve seen the last of them.

S: They will be back. But back to Guangzhou, they’ve won the title again, the first team in the CSL ear to sucessfully defend their crowd. What’s your reaction?

B: I think they are an unbelievably talented side, that nobody can really match top to bottom. They weren’t quite as dominant this year, and there are a few teams that can go head-to-head against them, but nobody has their consistency.

S: Yeah its interesting to compare with last year when they basically ran away with it. This year they have an even stronger squad, but despite all the new money coming in and the big foreign players joining, its incredibly ironic that Sainty were the team to push them all the way, a team who have no big name foreign stars.

B: It’s a good point. What do you think about Wu Jinggui’s statement that any Chinese manager could have led them to the title?

S: I have to agree. If anything, Evergrande haven’t made Lippi look too clever. Lee Jiangsoo’s record is much better than his game-for-game. Although Lee isn’t Chinese of course.

B: I only wonder if maybe Lippi was able to handle the big personalities better. Evergrande have a lot of players who’d be clear starters anywhere else who are sitting on the bench. You need someone who can deal with those egos.

S: Yeah you need someone of Lippi’s standing to do that. I still think Evergrande were very wrong to get rid of Lee. But back to the original point… I do think a Chinese manager could win the league with Evergrande. And Wu knows what he’s talking about, having won the league with Shenhua, albeit quite some time ago now.

B: Agreed…So the season hasn’t even finished and there are already rumors of more big signings, albeit domestic ones. What is it going to take to stop Evergrande from winning it next season?

S: No doubt they will be strong favourites again next season. Also it looks like they are about to sign Feng Renliang from Shenhua, which is something I find wrong and disturbing on so many levels.

B: It’s been rumored before that Feng’s heading there, but now it seems that he and Qingdao’s Zheng Long are very likely to be headed south. It seems like they are just stockpiling players at this point.

S: It does. They already have seven Chinese internationals, this is an unhealthy trend. This is one reason I find Feng’s move deeply disturbing. But from the Shenhua side, some might say he didn’t have a great season. But he scored four goals, more than any Chinese player except Cao Yunding. People say he’s not happy at Shenhua – of course he isn’t, he’s not been getting enough starts because of Zhu Jun’s totally lop-sided transfer policy means its difficult for him as an attacking player to get a start when you have Griffiths, Moreno, Anelka and Drogba in the team.

B: I think happiness is fairly relative. With the struggles that Shenhua have gone through this season and the weird coaching changes and different strategies, no player is going to be happy.
From another point of view, I think it may end up hurting the national team as these players, who’d be starters anywhere else, are stuck on the bench. We’ve seen the likes of Yang Hao want to get out after only one season. He went from being a marginal player on the bench to captaining Guizhou.

S: That’s another point, yes, agree with that. Feng’s chances aren’t going to be any better at Evergrande. But as a Shenhua fan, there’s even more reasons to be angry. This is just groundhog day. We have seen this before, Shenhua players in the national team leaving and going onto be succesful players at Evergrande – Gao Lin, Sun Xiang.

B: Yes, that has to hurt. But it seems that this is just something all Chinese fans are going to have to get used to. No top flight side’s going to be free of having its best players sold off to Evergrande.

S: Yeah but, Shenhua is splashing out millions on the likes of Drogba, then selling guys who play for the Chinese national team! And I mean, who exactly is Shenhua going to replace him with? You can only buy so many foreign players, and there isn’t a deep pool of Chinese talent sadly. I mean, for fucks sake…. I think its madness. Utter madness.

B: I fully agree and I think this just shows what motivated the decision to purchase Anelka and Drogba. It had nothing to do with football and what Shenhua needed most.

S: Mark my words. For as long as Zhu Jun is in charge at Shanghai Shenhua, they will never win a CSL title.
There’s no strategy to the Shenhua transfer policy, other than signing big names. No thought goes into the overall balance of the squad.

B: I don’t disagree with that. I do think they’ve made some very wise moves when it comes to bringing in young talent, but in the end Shenhua just seems to be sellers, for one reason or another they can’t hold onto their talent.

S: Chen Tao is another example of a top-level Chinese player who they didn’t hang onto. Li Weifeng another. It’s been like this for years now. Since Zhu took over infact.

B: Du Wei, etc etc etc….Yeah, they do really need to do something about that

S: The only player they let go who hasn’t gone onto become a success elsewhere is Mao Jianqing.

B: Hahaha, don’t remind me….

S: Hah ok

B: This is usually the time we start previewing the upcoming weekend, but it’s amazing how the schedule worked. There is really only one game with any serious meaning left.

S: There is, and what a game it is. Shenxin v Liaoning. Winner takes all.

B: I’m really surprised Liaoning has once again found themselves in this position. It’s certainly going to be a cracker in Shenyang, though I do believe Liaoning will do enough to keep themselves in the top flight.

S: They are at home and just need a draw, so you’d have to fancy them. But let’s not forget Shenxin beat Aerbin in Dalian a couple of weeks ago, and very nearly Shandong last weekend, so they have the momentum. Liaoning will have to fight hard.

B: Liaoning’s not exactly out of form themselves. I’m hoping they’ll stay up, but you’re right, there’s no predicting this one.

S: Surely you’re mistaken about Liaoning’s form, otherwise they wouldn’t be facing relegation on the final day, no?

B: They have something like eight points from their last five and almost came away with a point at Evergrande last weekend. Though obviously neither side set the league on fire this season, which is why they are where they are.

S: Ok so looks like Shenxin are favourites for the drop. But there’s still the question of ACL places, Guoan clinched third place, right?

B: The only question will be if I get the result I want in the CFA Cup. Guoan has clinched third and an ACL place as even if they lose and Guizhou win the last match of the season, Guoan holds the tiebreaker.

S: You weren’t too optimistic Guoan would nick third, but now they have, and ahead of Guizhou who have been very solid all season. Happy with that?

B: I’ll be a lot happier if Guangzhou win the CFA Cup.

S: I’d say they’re favourites, who then I ask, will sieze the 4th ACL place?

B: That I could care less about, but if Evergrande win, then Guoan get the automatic spot and 4th place gets to go through ACL qualifying. I really don’t want Beijing to go through the qualifying process.

S: No, but at least this time the 4th placed team knows the deal before the game begins. Liaoning dropped out last year as they didn’t want to end up in the Asian Cup if they lost their qualifying games. Now look where they are….

B: Predicting fourth is really too hard to say right now because none of their opponents have anything left to play for and there are five clubs with a legitimate shot. If I have to guess, I’d say Guizhou has the advantage. As it is they sit a point above the chasers and they only have to travel to Dalian. R&F host Jiangsu while Tianjin go head-to-head against Changchun. Aerbin are away at Hangzhou, an easier affair, but I think Guizhou will probably pull it out in the end.

S: Yeah only Changcun and Tianjin are the two teams who both have anything to play for here, a hard call. I’d say your guess is as good as any.

B: The way results were going last weekend, it almost seems as if nobody wants the spot.

S: Yes, it does appear as if a game of hot potato is in progress.

B: I think that’s what happens when you have so many sides who’ve never been that high in the table before.

S: Meanwhile, the old guard is narrowly escaping relegation. What on earth is going on, B?

B: Well, one of the old guard will be gone after this season…

S: Ah, you are referring to Dalian Shide. What’s the latest you’ve heard?

B: I think there’s almost no chance we’ll see them next season, though what form they will take, be it as a merged side with Aerbin or in another city, has yet to be decided.

S: Well here we go again. A league which badly requires history and tradition, tossing it in the bin – Shide have eight Chinese titles and are still far and away the most successful team in the land. A sad, sad day.

B: I’m not going to disagree, but that’s what happens when team names are tied to their sponsors. Xu Ming, the boss of Shide, was a little too close to Bo Xilai and got himself in a heap of legal and financial trouble. There’s no way the Shide Group can continue their support of the club, and nobody else will come in and keep that name.

S: Surely there is a chance their former sponsors Wanda will step in. Afterall, they are already sponsoring the CSL as a whole.

B: I don’t think the chances are high of that happening.

S: Why not?

B: Wang Jianlin said he’d never get involved in football again. I think enough time had passed plus he had an inlking to get involved and did so with football as a whole, but I can’t see him wanting to own a club again. I think it’s far more likely we see Aerbin and Shide merged into a “Dalian United”

S: I hope Dalian Shide’s history and tradition can be maintained, that is the most important thing in my view.

B: Well, they will remain in Dalian, which is important

S: You just said they might end up in another city.

B: That is a possibility, but I personally think that its 90% chance of some kind of merger, 8% they go somewhere else, and 2% chanc they remain in the league.

S: You’re a brave man to make such precise predictions about a CSL-related matter.

B: As the CSL goes, this is pretty cut and dried.

S: If you are right, I think its another sign of the perversity of how clubs are run. I don’t think this kind of total reliance on sponsors / owners is a good thing at all. And isn’t it ironic a new Dalian team appears this year, almost from nowhere, this time two years ago there where in the CSL2.

B: The two are in no way connected. I mean I can understand where you are coming from, as a European looking at the league, but I think that’s just how things are done in Asia. If you look at Japan and Korea, it’s similar.

S: That’s true. But the fact of the matter is you can’t keep moving teams around if you want to build a healthy league, regardless of what sponsors are doing.

B: Credit where it’s due, the Dalian FA has been doing everything they can to keep the club from being sold and moving to another city.

S: Glad to hear that. So, moving on, anything else catch your attention this week? How about the announcement of the China v New Zealand friendly at Hongkou next month? Will you be flying south for that?

B: I have my mind on a different topic, but regarding this one, not sure if it’s a weekend, but it might work out great to have a big meet up in Shanghai.

S: Yes, a get-to-gether is on the horizon. I wonder what shenanigans may take place?

B: I must say, I might be confused, but was Shanghai one of the cities the CFA picked as their “official sites”?

S: Yes I think it was. I can’t imagine there will be many more in Hongkou for this friendly than there will be on Saturday for Shenhua’s end of season dead rubber against Qingdao.

B: I have nothing to add…Shanghai is an odd choice to play this match and not really sure what we’ll find out from it. Snooze…..

S: I couldn’t agree more.

B: What isn’t a snooze is that IMG, who were in part responsible for the founding of the CSL’s precursor, Jia A, have decided to get back into Chinese football in a big way.

S: That is big news indeed, as our twitter followers may be well aware. It’s a sign that things are on the up, at least in the commercial sense.

B: It definitely is. They got out of the game because they didn’t see much future, indeed when they did things started going downhill pretty quickly. I think it’s a sign that things have really turned around.

S: Very much so. I do think its the start of better times, the CSL also has won a TV deal with Eurosport as well I believe, the IMG agreement will bring more such deals and that on the whole will be very good for the game.

B: Yes, more money in the game, especially that is focused on building up the game at all levels, is exactly what China needs, so I can see this being a good setup.

S: Right on. Well, is it time to drink up for another week?

B: I think it is, though I want to give a final shout out to the Hangzhou Grassroots Football Expo that is taking place as we speak. You’ll be in attendance, I believe, though unfortunately I can’t make the trip down south.

S: Yes indeed, a most worthy event and I’m looking forward to reporting on the goings-on down in Hangzhou town. Stay tuned.

B: Cheers to that!

S: That’s all folks! Cheers.

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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