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Previewing the sides: Beijing Guoan

We’re just days away from the kickoff of the 2013 Chinese Super League season. As we lead up to the start of the new season, we’ll preview a number of the side, starting off with the capital’s team.

The manager: The controversial and excitable Jaime Pacheco is gone after two seasons in which the club finished no worse than third place, replaced by the far more laid back Aleksandar Stanojevic. The Serb had plenty of experience in his home country before coming to Dalian Aerbin last season when the club was in the midst of a crisis. It seems that unlike his predecessor, the new manager knows how to play defense and considering how he did more with less in Dalian last season, fans are hoping he can work this magic in Beijing.

The history: Guoan famously won the league title in 2009 for the first time, that year saw the club return to Worker’s Stadium and created a renaissance in Beijing football. Last year saw the club finish in third place, a decent finish, but far from contending for the title. It also cost manager Jaime Pacheco his job, due to a losing streak and problems in the locker room and with signing foreign players. The club’s tradition of tough defense went by the wayside as they played attacking football, which didn’t pay off as the club often struggled to score goals.

The team: As mentioned above, defense has always been the club’s strong suit and we can expect to see the same setup in the back four as we’ve seen for many of the last few seasons, with Yang Zhi in goal, Zhou Ting and Zhang Xinxin on the left and right, and Xu Yunlong in the middle, alongside Yu Yang or Lang Zheng. Of course, Darko Matic, a feature in almost every Guoan match since 2009, will be making his presence felt. Elsewhere on the pitch, things are more up in the air, though Piao Cheng, Wang Xiaolong, and Zhang Xizhe are sure to play key roles in the midfield.

The stadium: Beijing’s Worker’s Stadium is one of the CSL’s oldest, built as one of the 10 great building projects for the 10th anniversary of the country in 1959. It’s located centrally and easily accessible by subway lines 2 (Dongsi Shitiao), 10 (Tuanjiehu), and 6 (Dongdaqiao) as well as countless bus lines. Match tickets can be hard to come by, typically going on sale a week before the match at liansaipiao.com, though for the bigger matches they will sell out very quickly. There are always plenty of touts outside the stadium, but depending on the match and your negotiating skills, prices will range from RMB80-300, unless you can find a caring fan willing to sell you an extra at face value.

The changes: Unfortunately, none. Guoan saw three midfielders (Xu Liang, Wang Changqing, and Zhu Yifan) leave the club during the winter transfer window, perhaps leaving them slightly too exposed to injury. The club failed to bring any domestic players in, a move that disappointed many fans who feel they are just a few moves short of a title. They did bring in two new foreigners, more on them below.

The foreigners: We talked about Matic above, a player we can’t stop praising. Last year, the club added Freddie Kanoute and Joffre Guerron in the summer transfer window and neither have set the world on fire. The pair both have substantial experience overseas, but both seem to have adapted to Chinese football far too quickly, struggling to stay on their feet at the lightest touch. Though there were rare glimpses of the quality that saw Kanoute stand out in the English Premiership and Spanish La Liga, his overall play was disappointing leading to wonders if he’s on his last legs. New pickups are Egor Krimets, a young, physical Uzbeki defender and Andre Lima, a Gremio striker with the ability to score and create. It’s too bad that Lima continues the struggles that Guoan have with Brazilians, as he came to the capital injured.

The star: Yang Zhi is back this season, the country’s once undisputed number 1 was out injured for much of last season and in the meantime, lost his position in Camacho’s side. When he came back, it took awhile before he was 100%, but by the end of the season, he was there. The Pohang match this year showed both the good and bad you get with Yang: he’s always capable of making unbelievable saves, but at the same time, his swashbuckling style often gets him caught out.

The youngster: More so than Piao Cheng, who had a blistering start to the 2012 season before faltering out, Zhang Xizhe is crucial this year. He was very inconsistent last year, leading fans to regularly criticize him, he came on strong at the end and looked good in the preseason this year. Guoan has long struggled with youngsters who never really meet their potential, and this year is critical in seeing if Zhang will step up to a national team level player with the possibility of going abroad or if he will just be an average, career CSLer.

The x factor: With no new signings at the club, the hope is that an old signing who wasn’t used much in 2012 will star in the new season. If Guoan is going to seriously compete in 2013, they will need Mao Jianqing to play every match as if he’s playing against Shanghai. He’s still only 26 and showed promise early in his career, if Beijing can bring about a career revival for the Shanghainese player, it could help propel Guoan. Unfortunately, early on he’s already showing signs of being a misfit. The other chance is with Shao Jiayi, nearing the end of his career, to provide an additional goal threat in the new season.

The prediction: There’s reason to have faith in new manager Stanojevic, but looking at the moves made by other clubs, Guoan may only be capable of sneaking into the final ACL position. The greater hope is that the club, starting just outside the CFA Cup’s quarterfinals, can put together a good cup run and get into Asia that way. The team has the quality to go head-to-head and come out with three points against any side in the CSL, but lack the depth to be consistent enough over 30 matches. That said, the club has yet to use any of their domestic transfer moves and so if they can stay in the thick of things in the summer, a few key moves could see them competitive down the stretch.

Brandon Chemers aka B. Cheng aka A Modern Lei Feng – is a name which may be familiar to many in the Chinese blogosphere.

He currently serves as Editor-in-Chief for Wild East Football and is one of the lonely souls writing about Chinese football in English for the last 10 years.

Chemers’ credentials are second to none – his former blog focused not only on the fortunes of his beloved Beijing Guoan FC, but a multitude of other aspects of Beijing life. He’s deservedly built a reputation in the Chinese blogosphere as an insightful observer of not only Chinese football, but also the wider picture of life in modern China and its many layers.

For WEF, beyond writing about Guoan, he often focuses on fan culture and the business of Chinese football.

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