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Pub Talk: Continental creaming

The drinkers finally have some games to mull over this week – the first round of the ACL group stage is digested, mixed fortunes for Chinese sides. Can Guangzhou go all the way? Are Urawa Reds the same as old? Is Sainty’s defeat a sign of things to come? These are the questions on the lips of your pundits. Elsewhere, as the transfer window slams shut, who are the most exciting individuals to clamber in before it did so? One team in particular is singled out for having fallen asleep on the job transfer-wise. A big and surprise managerial appointment is discussed, and there is all the usual banter in there for you to soak up. Pull up a stool and join in the rambling in the comments section.

B: It’s been so long since we’ve had actual competitive football to talk about, but with the Asian Champions League kicking off Tuesday night, there’s lots to discuss.

S: There is, and as always the first round of the ACL gave us some interesting pointers for the season ahead.

B: So where do you want to start?

S: Well I think Guangzhou’s victory was very interesting, 3-0 over Urawa Reds. It says as much about Urawa not being the force they once were as much as it does Guangzhou being on top of their game. Muriqui was in absolutely scintillating form.

B: Yeah, Guangzhou was very dominant in that one, well, Muriqui was at least. It was truly an impressive performance by the star.

S: But we see this is what happened last year, Evergrande whacked Jeonbuk 5-1 (I think) and everyone thought the new Chinese monied teams had arrived on the continental stage. But it didn’t work out like that.

B: I think we’ll still have to see how things work out in the ACL, but if Muriqui stays healthy, they’re going to be dangerous this year, definitely in the CSL and possibly beyond that.

S: Yeah I would expect them to go far in the ACL this year, but it’s too early to say if they have a shot at winning it or not. Much as I don’t like Evergrande, I’d love it if they won the ACL. What do you think the effect on Chinese football would be if they did?

B: I think a lot depends on how Lippi’s system works out. Tuesday night he insisted on playing Qin Sheng in a sweeper role, he’s a decent enough defensive midfielder, but he’s out of his league in that position. Honestly, I don’t know what role it would have. I think it would be widely celebrated as the “arrival” of Chinese football, but it’s meaningless. If they win it, it will be due largely to Muriqui and Conca, with a bit of assistance from a couple of the domestic players.

S: I see Feng Renliang didn’t make the starting XI.

B: Yes, I think Feng will be a rotation player, but not a regular starter. It’s even worse for Zhao Peng, Lippi chose Qin Sheng over him as a central defender. I think the reality is, if you were watching Guangzhou for the first time on Tuesday night, outside of Muriqui, maybe you were impressed with Zhang Linpeng, but nobody else would really impress you.

S: Yeah but I don’t think you can win an ACL game 3-0 with a load of passengers on the team.

B: Very true, anything else you have to say about the beating Guangzhou handed out or shall we move on to another match?

S: I think it’s just the first game, so no point in reading an awful lot into it. Sainty took a hammering, I think neither of us are surprised about that, right?

B: No, away against the K-League champions was always going to be a test, but FC Seoul was just another level. I was always thinking that Jiangsu was going to be mid-table, but after some of the signings, I started second guessing myself, but I think I was always right, don’t expect much out of this side in 2013.

S: It’s far too early to say I think. Sainty have continuity on their side, that is a factor most CSL clubs flagrantly ignore. I don’t think they will be runners-up again, but they will be challenging for an ACL spot again I think.

B: We’ll see. I would really be surprised by that. This weekend is the CSL Super Cup, so it will be interesting to see what Jiangsu does against Evergrande.

S: Yeah it will be. So what about the ACL games last night? It was interesting to see who was on the scoresheet against Guizhou wasn’t it?

B: Yes it was, Cleo sure settled in well with Kashiwa. I always thought he was a quality player and am happy he ended up in the J-League instead of elsewhere in the CSL.

S: Yeah, had he stayed in China he would have returned to haunt Evergrande and they know it.

B: I was impressed with how Guizhou played, they looked like the better side much of the match and their Bosnian duo, as well as Yang Hao and Yu Hai, especially stood out

S: I didn’t catch the game but it looked like a respectable result for their ACL debut.

B: It was a lot of bad luck, a few posts hit, Yu Hai pulled down in the box and a penalty not given. Guizhou starts out in a hole, but it was an all around impressive performance.

S: Yes. So how about Guoan’s game last night? Was it the bore-draw the scoreline suggests? Your views, please.

B: The first half may have seen some fans nod off, but the second half was full of action, both teams were close to scoring more than once, though Pohang slightly dominated the chances. I was definitely impressed with Stanojevic’s lineup last night and it shows that he knows when to sit back and play defensively, whereas Pacheco was always attack, attack, attack. I was definitely impressed with Stanojevic’s lineup last night and it shows that he knows when to sit back and play defensively, whereas Pacheco was always attack, attack, attack.

S: Were you pleased with it as an opening fixture?

B: Definitely, I don’t think a Guoan fan could have asked for much more than a draw. Bunyodkor is looking like the best team in the group with their 2-0 win at Sanfrecce Hiroshima. If Guoan can get a draw in Hiroshima and then beat the Japanese and Korean sides at home, it might be enough to go through.

S: Yeah Bunyodkor look favourites. So any other notes about the ACL? First round and all that, early days etc.

B: You’re right, still early days, but after what I saw the past few days it has upped my confidence in Guoan and Guizhou and definitely has me questioning where I’ll place Jiangsu in my season preview, which will be out early next week.

S: I think its unwise to let one round of ACL games influence our predictions, even if we don’t have much else to go on.

B: Very true, it’s only one match, and tough ones at that. So what else is on your mind? Lot’s going on as the transfer market is coming to a close soon.

S: Yes, but what’s concerning me right now is the lack of a finalized fixture list.

B: It’s already been finalized, perhaps Shenhua (and the people at Sina and Sohu) are just lazy. I already have a finalized version of Guoan’s fixtures in the new season.

S: Right, but is there a comprehensive list of all fixtures on the CSL or CFA website?

B: Does the CSL have a website? I’m not joking, I don’t honestly know…The CFA site is generally crap, but I think they know nobody really views it. I just don’t think the league or teams bothered to release it yet. As I said, in this regard, Guoan’s done well, as they have posted their entire finalized fixture list on the site. Very helpful for fans (like me) who are planning for the upcoming away trip to Wuhan. A TBD on time and date doesn’t help anybody.

S: It’s so typical. Here we are just a fortnight before the CSL kicks off and there’s still confusion in some quarters as to where their team kicks off – I’m still not sure if Shenhua will play their minus-six pointer against Tianjin at home or away. And the exact date and time.

B: I thought it had been decided it would be in Shanghai?

S: I think so, but I’ve yet to learn of any definite word. Perhaps it’s me who is just farting around and not paying attention.

B: That may very well be it, the information is definitely out there, though some clubs aren’t as quick as others. We talked a little previously about some of the big transfers, but any thoughts on which club strengthened themselves the most through the transfer market?

S: I think Aerbin have made some shrewd purchases, but some other teams have been strangely inactive…

B: Do you have any specific club in mind?

S: Yours.

B: Very true, I can’t stop talking about it as its so frustrating, I think we did last week a little as well. It’s just a total lack of ambition. Not a single domestic signing, not even a sales manager who was playing amateur footie like Shenhua signed.

S: So who have you got, the Uzbekistani guy on loan, and a Brazilian forward. Will they set Gongti alight?

B: I’m waiting to see what Andre Lima does, although he is injured and it’s not sure when he’ll actually make it on the pitch. The Uzbeki seems a decent addition, but it’s not enough for a team that isn’t that far away from being contenders.

S: Why the lack of domestic signings?

B: There’s a simple answer and a more complex one. The simple one is that the club, rather rightly, believes that there is a transfer price bubble that exists in the CSL right now.

S: True

B: The reality is that it has existed ever since Evergrande came up to the CSL and it doesn’t look like it’s going to abate any time soon. However, Guoan has yet to adjust to this new reality. So the end result is that Guoan watched as at least two teams that were behind them in the table spent considerably (both over RMB 25 million) and turned themselves into serious contenders.

S: So Guoan lost Xu Liang and Wang Changqing in midfield, but no replacements?

B: No real replacements, though Lima will hopefully take over Xu’s position and, let’s be honest, C Qing was a rotation player/option off the bench more than anything.

S: Right, which is why I can’t fathom at all why Shenhua wasted their time buying this guy. At 31 he’s not going to improve.

B: Well…he’s not a total scrub, if Shenhua were not planning on spending the money they got from their sales, then he’s not a bad pickup. I wouldn’t be surprised if he provides a couple goals, but he’s not going to set the world on fire. Are you at all surprised we didn’t see the “big European names” coming to the CSL? Did the Drogba debacle scare them all off?

S: I am a bit, Guillaume Hoarau is a big name, but, because he doesn’t play in the Premier$ship, obviously he’s irrelevant to most.

B: I wouldn’t say he’s irrelevant, I like PSG, it’s a big club, but they’ve gone through a lot of struggles the past few seasons and the French league isn’t one that gets a lot of attention, including here in China. I’m not all that surprised, remember Drogba and Barrios came in the summer. I think most players are more likely to make the jump for money when they’re sitting on the beaches of southern Europe or Dubai instead of when their club is right in the thick of things.

S: I’m just kidding, just to make the point that very high quality players are out there, but seems you need to have played in the EPL aka over-rated hype league, to be classified a big name, that is, to have the average fan have heard of them.

B: So I think we can both agree that Guoan probably did the absolute worst in the transfer market, you think all the credit goes to Aerbin as having done the best? What about Shandong?

S: I think Ryan McGown is a very very good pickup and I think better than most defenders in the CSL. Yang Xu is also a strong signing upfront – does this mean the end of Han Peng’s Luneng career? He seems sidelined this past season or two.

B: Yeah, I think he’s done in Jinan and I’m guessing if he doesn’t move before the end of today, he’ll end up going somewhere when the transfer window reopens in the summer.

S: You’d think so. Really not sure what’s happened to him, in my view he’s one of the best strikers China has produced. Perhaps he’s lost form in recent seasons or just not been fancied by whoever’s been in the hot seat in Jinan.

B: Yeah, it’s always easier and less stressful to just pencil in the foreign strikers. That’s one of the things that I loved from last night’s Guoan-Pohang game, by the way, out of 22 players, only 2 weren’t Korean or Chinese, that’s a real rarity. It is interesting that the “sell-off” that was expected in Jinan never took place, in fact they ended up going out and spending a lot instead.

S: That’s an impressive stat. It’s just a pity no-one could score any goals last night. As for Shandong, seems there has been some upheaval in recent seasons, I expect them to do much better this year having under-achieved badly last season and very nearly went down.

B: Yes, last season they took some risks playing their young, talented players. I think with that core of young players, plus the new additions that have been purchased after the CFA’s light punishment, they are going to be a strong side.

S: So speaking of new personnel – what about Shanghai East Asia’s new manager? I think that falls squarely into the “coup” category.

B: From the time Gao Hongbo was “let go” by Guizhou, there was speculation he’d end up at East Asia due to his long relationship with Xu Genbao. I just find it hilarious because Beijing Baxy publicly stated that Gao was going to be their manager, and yet that didn’t happen. Gao’s a good choice, but I don’t think it’s enough. I do find it interesting that his first match in charge is going to be in Beijing against Guoan.

S: I think its very very good appointment for them. There is a lot of symmetry there – Shanghai East Asia being a home-grown team and they are now sporting a home-grown manager. Interesting times down in Xujiahui.

B: Losing Bai Jiajun is certainly not the best way to introduce Gao to his new squad.

S: It’s not, I have to admit I almost fell out of my chair when I read that news. It is the only piece of good news of any description whatsoever, to come Shenhua’s way this close season. Shenhua haven’t had a proper left back for years, ever since Sun Xiang left. Bai Jiazhun is an excellent player and one to watch for the future for sure.

B: Definitely a great addition for the club, leaving you lot with a little bit of hope. Should we end there before we return to more depressing topics?

S: Yes, I think that’s a very timely call.

B: Cheers mate, look forward to previewing the new season and league matches next week!

S: As do I. Cheers man.

UK trained journalist and long-time Chinese football observer Cameron Wilson has been writing about Chinese football for over a decade…

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