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Pub Talk: Brawls and bans and crazy fans

After a both drinkers being too unwell to appear in the pub last week, your correspondents catch up this week discussing all the events of the day. The latest progress in the ACL is discussed – who will go through, and Chinese teams are praised for once in Asia. Shenhua’s resurgence comes up, as do controversial incidents during that game. The theme of contentious decisions is constant in the pub this week – bans for supposedly violent play are mulled over – is the CFA doing the right thing? Your dynamic duo seem to think it’s a bit over the top, as is getting booked for taking your top off. And to top all that off, your pair knock-off early for the weekend to head off to watch their teams face-off. Yeah, Pub Talk’s got it going on!

B: After a break last week, we’re back in the pub with a lot to discuss, as usual.

S: That’s right, so much going on, I’m losing track.

B: Well, let’s start out with the Asian Champions League. Guangzhou Evergrande look clear to go through to the next round. All three of the other Chinese sides are still in the hunt, though it’s going to be an uphill battle.

S: I think the CSL has made a definite “level up” this year in the ACL. Evergrande are as good as through, and I would predict at least one other Chinese side will make it. It’s a confidence thing, I don’t think there is a big quality gap between the teams in the CSL and other top Asian leagues.

B: Yes. For the first time we see all the sides with a chance to go through (like you say Evergrande’s done it already). It will be interesting to see who that side is. I thought it would be Guoan previously, but they looked horrible against Bunyodkor, blowing an opportunity in a 1-0 loss.

S: That was a disappointing result, but Guizhou and Sainty overcome poor starts to get themselves right back in it. Guizhou were a bit lucky though against Central Coast perhaps?

B: Yeah, it was a match both sides needed, I think that’s what ultimately happens when you’re at home and the other side makes that long flight to Guiyang.

S: They would have had to make a couple of changes. I wonder what the players down under really think of having to make trips to China for competitive games?

B: Especially to a “back water” like Guiyang, without direct flights. Any thoughts on which of the three other Chinese sides will go through?

S: Really hard to say. I think Guoan should make it. Guizhou and Sainty still have it all to do.

B: Yes, it’s definitely up in the air at this point. On the topic of “up in the air”, Shanghai Shenhua certainly are flying high lately…

S: Oh man, yeah. I think its marvellous. If last year’s team played with this year’s team’s team spirit and determination, they would have walked the title.

B: The game over the weekend wasn’t without controversy, something we’ve seen a lot of this season.

S: That’s right. The game hinged on that dodgy corner decision, although it’s hard to tell for sure from the TV camera angle if it was out or not, the whistle sounded well before the ball ended up in the net.

B: Bad refereeing has been a problem all year, we’ve seen the league take action against a number of referees so far.

S: Yeah, I have seen some odd decisions. But, it happens everywhere, I don’t think it’s really much worse here than elsewhere.

B: And yet we’re starting to see the league suspend referees. Right now we’ve had five rounds completed, something like 29 matches with Chinese referees, and 6 have been suspended.

S: I find it a bit strange, are you aware of how it has been in previous years?

B: I honestly am not, but I think this is a new(ish) policy to up the ante for referees and improve quality.

S: I hope it works, refereeing is an issue. But to be honest, being a good referee is like being a good defender, you don’t notice them unless they do something wrong.

B: Right. It’s unfortunate that the CFA is starting to discover this problem with domestic officials, because bringing in foreign referees isn’t always the solution. We’ll see Thai referees in charge of Guoan’s match tonight.

S: Yeah, the incompetence of foreign referees just proves the point, that poor officiating is not limited to China. However, foreign refs are brought to China to keep the game as clean as possible.

B: One match without refereeing controversy was Guangzhou Evergrande’s 2-1 win over Dalian Aerbin. The Cantonese side keeps cruising while Aerbin is stuck in the mud.

S: Aerbin just aren’t getting it together. I think Qingdao are impersonating them.

B: Haha, perhaps that is the case. For Evergrande, it was yet another slow start, not scoring until the second half. They’ve scored 23 goals in all competitions, of which only 5 were first half goals. Is that reason to be concerned as they go on and play on three fronts?

S: That’s an interesting stat. I think Evergrande have enough in the locker to take care of everything. I fear they are going to walk away with the league this year, there just isn’t anyone else on the same level.

B: I’m not seeing it, I think they’ll be held down, but they are off to an impressive start, the only side that could hold them back was Guoan. Then again, they’ve faced some of the tougher challenges already, the next 5 matches should be smooth sailing for them, so it will be telling if someone forces them to drop points.

S: You have a habit of thinking wishfully when it comes to Evergrande. They are a sure-fire bet for the league title, simply because they have significantly more talent than every other team. They may not run away with the title, but I really can’t see them not winning it after seeing the rest of the other teams’ displays so far.

B: Evergrande have so far performed better than anyone else, that’s for sure, I just think that after they’ve only played four matches, it’s crazy to give them the title. I also think that there’s going to be some turnover there in the summer, Barrios and/or Conca are going to leave and it could create problems for them. Then again, they also could restock with even better players. Shandong is a solid side and I think they’ll be in the race all year-long. If not for a horrible bit of refereeing, they’d have won their first five matches.

S: Fair enough, it is early. Although I think Conca leaving Evergrande will probably turn out to be positive. I don’t know all the facts, but unless his son is seriously ill, using him being unwell as a reason not to play sounds like a load of baloney, as the Americans say.

B: I agree, using your son as an excuse is about as low as you can go. And on the subject of low, this week Conca’s side will be taking on a struggling Changchun Yatai, any thoughts?

S: Changchun are having a hard time of it, I don’t think they will offer Evergrande much of a challenge. They managed to slip beneath the radar to some extent at the start of the season in terms of teams tipped to struggle, but I think they are going to have a hard time this year, any upturn in fortunes is not likely to begin until after they leave Guangzhou this weekend.

B: Yeah, this should see Guangzhou continue to cruise to an easy three points as Changchun just don’t have enough, especially on the road.

S: I think they are very mediocre, they signed some random Brazilians who appear to have never been good enough to get a game in their home country, and their manager Sapuric, who I believe is Serbian, hasn’t achieved much either.

B: Right, it was a side that didn’t really improve in the off-season and though they have some unbelievably talented youngsters, that’s not enough.

S: Matt McKay was a very solid signing though. I have to say the relegation picture really is looking quite unlike most people predicted. Qingdao and Shenhua were amongst the favourites, both remain unbeaten and indeed one is top of the league. Bang! Hows that for a segue!

B: I’m sure our many pedants will point out it’s not good to compliment yourself on those segues, haha. So what will happen to Shenhua when they travel to the seaside?

S: Hhahaha. I am the segue master! But anyways, it’s an intriguing clash. Our three errant South Americans will be back in the team. We saw they can create an impact last time round against Qingdao’s local rivals Shandong. But Bai Jiajun is out injured, and we don’t really have any other leftbacks, so its musical chairs again position-wise. Shenhua fans would be probably happy with a draw all things considered. And that is the result I’m predicting.

B: Qingdao’s never an easy place to travel to and Shenhua have struggled there as of late, a point would be a great result for them.

S: I think so. Plus despite Shenhua’s very good start to the season, there’s no room for complacency, we only have three points after all. So what are you looking forward to about this weekend’s fixture card? I’ve got a talking point – Sanity v Dalian Arebin – two teams tipped to be at the top who are struggling.

B: Well, let’s deal with your talking point first.

S: What do you have to say about it?

B: It’s an interesting match. Aerbin are by far the better side on paper, but have yet to come together after so many off-season changes. Sainty are where I expected them to be, but it’s a home match for them and they’ve done well in Nanjing. I’m guessing Aerbin will somehow slip by with a one goal victory.

S: Bold prediction! Aerbin perhaps have some of the Shenhua of last season about them – big players who are maybe too good for the rest of the team. I think Sainty will win this one, I don’t think Aerbin are clicking right and I wouldn’t be surprised if they make some key changes in the summer, but yeah that is a way off yet.

B: What changes do you see them making in the summer? I’d be shocked to see more turnover at Aerbin, except I do think they’ll bring in an actual manager. As for Sainty, if you’re making comparisons, they are a lot like Liaoning last season, coming back to reality after a high the previous season when they shocked everyone.

S: They may punt some big signing and get another in on loan, it depends on the owner’s mentality, but they have spent big and had constant success pretty much literally ever since day one of the club’s existence, this is their first difficult patch where, for the first time, they are not performing to expectations. This is when powers-that-be get agitated and behave rashly. As for Sainty, agree, they over-performed last year. But they are still a very capable side I think.

B: I would disagree about Aerbin, I can’t see them selling off Keita or Rochemback, though I do think there’s a bit of interest in Utaka. In fact, it wouldn’t surprise me if they do the opposite and double down, buying a top Korean or Australian player to fill their currently empty Asian player allocation.

S: We will see. What about Guoan? You have an interesting clash against fellow ACL competitor Guizhou, your thoughts, please.

B: That’s a good question. Two weeks ago I would have told you it would be an easy win considering how strong Guoan opened up. Now it’s a different story. They’ve struggled in their last two matches and Zhou Ting will be out for the next four matches, plus Guizhou have turned things around. However, I’m no longer that pessimistic and do believe the side will be able to narrowly nick all three points.

S: I’d go with Beijing for that one too. What’s your take on Zhou Ting’s suspension? And for those of you elsewhere in the pub, he was given the punishment for kicking Shanghai Shenxin’s Kieza instead of the ball, during last week’s game.

B: Well, no, that’s not true. If you watch the video, it seems obvious he kicked the ball and only that. In any case, I think his case is a much harder call to make than the previous suspensions, but that said, it was a dangerous play and probably deserved a red card.

S: If its obvious he only kicked the ball, why are we having this conversation?

B: Come on mate, have you watched the video? Is it not obvious? We’re having this discussion because it WAS a dangerous play, the ball was inches from Kieza’s chest and as such, it was stupid of Zhou to kick the ball. We can argue whether or not there was an intent like with the previous incidents of suspension, in this case, it doesn’t seem like he had any intent to injure. What I find interesting is what direction, if any, the CFA has given the clubs and players, but by now its obvious: dangerous play will get you a multi-match ban.

S: I think it’s the other Guoan player who stands on Kieza’s leg which is the issue.

B: Yes, it does appear as if Xu Yunlong may have accidentally stepped on Kieza there. Whatever the case, the argument in Zhou’s favor is that you see this sort of thing happen a lot in China, a guy goes down in a close match late and tries to cover up the ball to waste time, and I think that’s what Zhou thought Kieza was doing, which is why he went for the ball.

S: Actually I just watched it again. My take is this: Kieza, being a typical south American, goes down far too easily from the challenge of Xu. Keita is trying to waste time and in their anger Zhou and Xu get too physical. Xu definitely connects with Kieza’s leg/knee and that looks kinda nasty, Zhou kicks the ball when its right next to Keita’s body, he’s pissed because Kieza has dived. Have a look everyone.

B: To me, I think it goes back to what we talked about earlier with referees and part of why Guo Baolong, the referee of that match, has been suspended himself. To me it’s clear Xu fouled Kieza, if the referee would have blown the whistle there, Guoan would still have Zhou.

S: I think the four match bad was harsh, it was reckless play, all parties should have been yellowed, end of story.

B: I would agree, but I think it just shows the CSL has different standards. Does the EPL even allow post-match review of a play where a red card wasn’t shown?

S: I am not sure, but in general post-match reviewing is a dog’s dinner. Red cards can be rescinded, at least, the resultant ban rescinded. But blatant play-acting is ignored- shamefully so. At least, this is in England where cards can be reversed.

B: Yeah, this tendency to start the bans at four matches is way too high, but its kind of what I expected as that’s what the unwritten rule says.

S: At least we can say they are trying to do something to increase discipline and uphold fair play. But I’m not sure they are going about it the right way, it seems an over-reaction in this case.

B: It does, but it also does in the case of Zhao Xuri and Davi as well, though those actions can be explained away as being incidents that took place after the whistle was blow, but even then, a slap in one case, a push in the other, those things shouldn’t get you four matches.

S: It’s driven by a kind of up-tightness on their part, they don’t want to see players fighting or shoving each other, they think its looks really ugly and unacceptable, understandable to a point, but the reality is it’s a competitive game and things will get out of hand at certain points, a few shoves and angry gestures are fine in moderation as long as it’s not a brawl – which is what 4 match bans are suitable for.

B: That’s a very good point. It was a brawl, after all, that caused CCTV-5 to cancel their coverage of the league, so I can see them wanting to keep things “clean”, but as a fan, I like a little bit of physicality, it shows these guys actually care.

S: I completely agree, its a contact sport also. There has to be a mild tolerance for physical confrontation as long as it does not involve punches or kicks.

B: Football with Chinese Characters!

S: I think though this is part of the gentrification of the game to an extent, it’s all about an acceptable “spectacle”, China is not alone in this, these days players anywhere get booked for taking their top off in celebration. I think that is absolutely absurd, in what way is a player stripping to the waist offensive?

B: Haha, yeah, as much as I hate Tianjin, it was outrageous to see Cao Yang be shown a 2nd yellow for stripping off his kit top when he scored a last-minute equalizer. Football is about passion and something like that should be viewed with discretion.

S: Yes but those who make the rules have no passion and are focused on using football for their own ends.

B: That’s right, and it’s too bad…Ack, you’re going to get me crying in my beer, how bout we down these pints and go watch some football?

S: I say it’s about time to get busy and head to the stadium. See you!

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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