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Pub Talk: And they’re off!

With the Chinese Super league finally under way, your pubsters get their teeth into last weekends action and ask all the usual questions one might expect of a new season, such as which teams stood out, who will be the surprise team, and which manager will be sacked first. There are more immediate matters to discuss though as Ultra pulls Bcheng down from the ceiling following a Beijing victory in the Asian Champions League. Elsewhere, Ultra goes off on a tangent about Zhu Jun, and the firs Shanghai Derby of the season is previewed, along with some other big games this weekend, including the showdown between last year’s runners-up and champions. That’s what’s in the pub this Friday, read on and join in.

Shanghai Ultra: So B, I think the pub must be the most fitting location for you right now, given last night’s ACL result, how was it?

Bcheng: It was so amazing I hardly felt like leaving the pub to come to this pub. It was a match that few Guoan fans will forget anytime soon and it definitely has fans thinking Beijing’s Asian run could go on.

S: Describe the moments to us all when that late goal went in.

B: It was one of those things where the gods of football had to do something to help out Guoan, but it was really down to the side. Piao Cheng and Zhang Xizhe were chasing after every ball, pressuring the defense to make mistakes, and it was great seeing Piao get that goal. When it went in, it was mental.

S: Is it fair to say no-one was really expecting a win?

B: I think beforehand there was a fair deal of optimism about the match, especially seeing how Jiangsu did yesterday and that Sanfrecce was missing a top striker. I don’t think anyone was “expecting” a win, but I think many felt if Beijing played in the new style Stanojevic is promoting, three points were quite possible.

S: Looks like a good start to the season, optimism riding high? Wow is Kanoute being utilized?

B: Definitely reason to be optimistic, last night was always going to be a big test and they passed with flying colors. Now we’ll have to see how they do in two weeks when Evergrande comes calling. Kanoute did get the start last night, seems he’s fit again, and he played well, though he (and Guerron as well) tend not to have enough faith in their teammates, holding onto the ball for too long when a pass is available.

S: Same story as last year. Who has replaced Xu Liang?

B: Stanojevic is using Piao Cheng in that position and he’s done pretty well there. It’s not a position that is completely foreign to him, he did play there a few times under Pacheco and with the U-23 natonal team.

S: What exact position is that?

B: In the defensive midfielder role.

S: Right, that’s where Xu was playing for Shenhua last weekend. So speaking of last weekend, what did you make of it?

B: I think we definitely saw two surprises, with Liaoning winning at R&F and Qingdao defeating Guizhou, I think we’ll have to look at those four sides this week to see if that was just the strangeness of opening day or something more. Beyond that, I think it played pretty much the way most would have expected it.

S: Agree. Qingdao was a big surprise, but then again how many times have we used that phrase?

B: I didn’t see the match, only the result, but yeah, it certainly was. Who knows if the difficulty of playing on two fronts is getting to Guizhou.

S: A lot of unknowns still to unravel themselves. R&F will definately be dissapointed, especially to ship four goals at home.

B: What did you think of new look Shenhua?

S: That’s a good question. Schiavi was a revelation. Although he lacks a bit of pace, as one might expect of a 40-year-old, he’s obviously a quality player, made every tackle and his positioning is what you’d expect of someone of his experience. Going forward though, Shenhua looked bereft of any cutting edge whatsoever.

B: Is Moreno going to be healthy? How bad was his injury?

S: He’s back in training but doubtful for Sunday’s derby. Against Tianjin he pretty much left off from where he finished last season, good on the ball but not delivering much. He’s still the most important player in the team. In general though, Shenhua must take 12 points from their next six games not only to catch up but to instill confidence in the side. But to be honest, at this point I can’t see where the goals are going to come from.

B: Yes, 12 points is going to be a big ask for Shenhua, I think. Any thoughts on Elkeson’s CSL debut as Evergrande crushed your derby opponents?

S: I think he showed he’s serious business. Is he playing upfront or what? I thought he was an attacking midfielder.

B: I believe Lippi’s been playing him as a striker. He’s had some struggles, but he really showed his quality against Shenxin. Now let’s see if he can keep that up against stronger opponents.

S: Yeah, Shenxin obviously weren’t much of a test. I thought Shenhua would have gotten destroyed by a better team last weekend, so this weekend’s test versus Shenxin is going to be a very interesting clash, it’s already looking like a relegation dogfight. If Shenhua can’t turn over Shenxin, its going to be a grim and miserable season I fear.

B: It certainly will be interesting, the first proper derby, actually in Shanghai, and with some tension in a long time.

S: Yeah, Shenxin, not content with stealing our longest serving player and captain, only offered the Shenhua fan groups 5,000 tickets. The stadium is said to hold 16,000 for football games, so that’s 11,000 tickets for Shenxin fans? Dream on, they haven’t got any outside of Nanchang and a few in Jinshan.

B: I don’t know, 5,000 sounds like a pretty generous alottment. Indeed if their fans are so lacking, it shouldn’t be so hard for you lot to just head out there and get tickets

S: True. But that stadium has hosted several Shanghai teams over the years, including Shenhua for a season, when Hongkou was getting “renovated” for the women’s world cup. And only Shenhua was able to put fans in it. Shangahi United, Shanghai Zobon, Shanghai Zobon Pudong, none of these teams have ever managed to get more than a couple of thousand fans in. Even then, I think most of the tickets were freebies.

B: We’ll see how Shenxin do out there. If you’re basing it on where the players are from, they’re the most Shanghainese team in the city.

S: I’m not sure about that, I think East Asia are, although Shenxin have a lot of local players seeing as they originally started up in SH.

B: No, East Asia actually have very few players who are actually from Shanghai.

S: That’s news to me, where do you get that from?

B: From their team registration. The vast majority, like most Chinese footballers, are from Shandong and Liaoning, with a smattering from the Yangtze delta region. Remember, Xu Genbao is a massive name in Chinese football, kids come from aroud the country to study at his school.

S: So why does it say on their player profiles on East Asia’s offical site that, of the 10 Chinese player profiles on the front page, eight are from Shanghai?

B: I would have to go back and check, but from the registration they submitted with the league, I was surprised at how few were from Shanghai. Perhaps that is because the registration is based specifically on hukou, but I’m not sure.

S: Come on Brandon, that was a silly thing to say, admit it.

B: The registration count is 17 for Shenxin (plus Shanghainese manager), 10 for East Asia.

S: Ok fair enough, that’s interesting, there’s a good few more East Asia players from Shanghai not registered then it seems, according to their website anyways.

B: In any case, so will Shenhua get themselves that much closer to zero?

S: I dare not make any prediction. All I can say is if Shenhua get beat, they are even deeper in the mire. I don’t have one of the 5,000 tickets, but I think I’ll make it, should be a very interesting match. There is a lot of rhetoric out there from Shenhua fans towards Shenxin, they have been dubbed the “wandering chickens” based on their new club badge and constant moving base. Their decision to change to blue just seems ridiculous. They just need to get bought over by a self-obsessed nouveaux riche, keep playing players out of position, and then finally, no-one will be able to tell the difference. Haha.

B: This weekend is full of exciting matches, the Shanghai derby being just one of many. We also have last year’s champions and runners up facing off against each other.

S: Yeah that is tie of the round for me. Danalache is still out injured I believe, I think Evergrande will make a serious statement of intent and see off Sainty.

B: I’m with you on an Evergrande victory, I think they’ll want revenge, but I don’t think it will be as dominant as you say.

S: I think agreeing they will win is enough common ground. We need to get some Evergrande drinkers in here next time I think.

B: If I’m not mistaken, Evergrande has really crushed Jiangsu at Tianhe, at least before this year’s Super Cup.

S: I can’t remember. I do think Jiangsu may have just pissed off Evergrane by winning the Super Cup. In anycase, everyone at Sainty would trade the Super Cup win in for a league victory over the same opponents.

B: Most definitely, but I think they’ll have to wait for the return leg to get it. It will be interesting to see how Lippi deals with the side, having just come off an ACL match and with much of the team leaving to join the national team the day after the Jiangsu match.

S: I think Lippi will find this year his toughest yet at Evergrande. He’s used to getting everything his way in Europe, and dealing with hands-on presidents, but China is a different ball game and this year he can’t say the team isn’t his.

B: I think every time you win the title, its always hard maintaining the same drive and passion a year later, at some point you just burn out.

S: That’s the danger. So what else is on the menu this weekend?

B: Well, there’s two other matches that are definitely worth a look, should we talk about the Men in Green first?

S: Sure – what’s going on in Hangzhou?

B: They are hosting R&F, sure to be interesting, but not quite the match I was referring to.

S: Hhaha just kidding. Please, continue B.

B: Well, while the two sides on the pitch in Wuhan don’t have anything against each other, one set of fans will be looking for blood.

S: Tell us more…

B: Well, there will be a feature up later today telling the whole story, but a few years ago, there was an incident in a match between Wuhan and Guoan which led to Wuhan quitting the CSL. This is the first time they’re back up in the top flight. Despite it being hard to blame the whole thing on Guoan, fans being irrational beings, do so and they want revenge.

S: I remember that, Li Weifeng was the bad boy on that occasion, and it led to CCTV 5 stopping CSL coverage. Seems harsh to blame Guoan for the CSLs decision, Wuhan made their own bed, they should have laid in it.

B: I fully agree, but again, when do football fans think rationally?

S: Ya. It would be boring if rational. Elsewhere, Im quite interested to see how Qingdao get on against Aerbin, who also suffered defeat on the first round.

B: Aerbin lost a tough match last week, but I think they’ll cruise to victory this week, no way a second team from Shandong beats them.

S: Write off Qingdao at your peril. But yeah, probably the right call this time.

B: That match is in Qingdao, so it won’t be easy, but Aerbin is a very tough team and they were playing strong opposition last week.
I think what I’m more interested in is Gao Hongbo facing a club that fired him just three months ago.

S: Ah yes, that’s very interesting. Guizhou have a lot to prove as to why they fired him.

B: Yeah, there were some stories that this would be a major loss of face for his replacement, so much so that he may even have to quit if they lose to Gao and East Asia.

S: That would be a bit extreme. But I’m sure Gao would be gratified to see that outcome, even if he may not care to publicly admit it.

B: I think he definitely would, when it come to mistreated managers, Gao’s just slightly behind Lee Jangsoo. He deserves a win.

S: Yeah I would like to see Gao get the satisfaction. Asian managers seem to be shat upon in the CSL, which is very unfortunate and undeserved, as of course most of the players managed are Asian. So, it’s interesting to see Shenhua hiring Shen Xiangfu as “coach of the Chinese players”.

B: Well, all managers get shat upon in the CSL, look at how quick Tigana was given the boot. Look at Pacheco getting fired after finishing 2nd and 3rd in the league. It’s cyclical, we’re up to 7 Chinese managers right now. If you’re talking Asian managers, there would be 9, that’s over half the league.

S: True, true. I just think for a foreign manager, its a much more complicated affair fitting into a club than being a player.

B: It definitely is, but CSL GM’s are not easy on managers, no matter where they’re from.

S: It’s foolish. Continuity is always lacking in the CSL, and changing managers as often as is done in the CSL is a largely useless strategy. If you want proof, Zhu Jun once told the Financial Times “It is not abnormal we change two coaches in one year as we do not have any long-term plan. We’re different from Europe.” As usual, Zhu’s absolute lack of understanding of football basics.

B: Zhu’s the extreme, but unfortunately a lot of club’s aren’t that far away from this line of thought.

S: Yeah, there’s always this tiresome “China is different” mantra. Sure, things are definitely not the same around here, but his justification for switching managers all the time because “China is different” lacks any logic whatsoever.

B: Is there anything else on your mind, my friend?

S: Yeah I just hate that bullshit attitude held in some quarters here that all the stupid decisions the CFA makes are put down to “China being different.” Football is football, the basics are the same everywhere. People say that when a foreigner comes to China, you don’t change China, China changes you. That is because, China is bigger than you. Football is bigger than China, China has to change itself to be successful at it in my view.

B: I think you make some good points, but I don’t think you’re right that China needs to change itself to be successful. It’s resisted change in many other areas and still been successful, I think for football they can do the same. There can be “football with Chinese characteristics”, they just have to figure out what those are.

S: I’m all for China doing football with Chinese characteristics, but everyone knows the amount of kids playing the sport is minuscule, in order to increase this, there needs to be big changes.

B: I totally agree, but that has nothing to do with the way the professional game is run, which is what we’re talking about here. Or at least what I thought we were.

S: I’m talking about the big picture, but I think the way the professional game is structured is wrong right from the start, there’s an old school centralist top down approach which has not worked anywhere else in football before and will not work here. The head of the CFA is a career bureaucrat who had no experience in football, that is not a sensible or logical appointment if the advancement of Chinese football was the key reasoning behind it.

B: Woah tiger, I think we’re getting into a whole different discussion here that could go on for hours, perhaps you’ve imbibed a little too much? Should we head out and grab some chuan?

S: Yeah probably best leave that chat for another day, the chuan smells better than the CFA.

B: Cheers to that, mate! Enjoy derby day…

S: Looking forward as always! 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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