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Pub Talk: Retaking the manor…

This week, Bcheng and Shanghai Ultra are back in their familiar position, after their undignified lock-out last week at the hands of the Guangzhou contingent, who prevented them from rambling on about Shenhua and Guoan. This week the duo waste no time getting back to serious business, the ACL is a major topic of discussion, we look at how successful Chinese clubs have been this year, and there is a major difference of opinion on weather Chinese players should be expected to handle two games a week or not. The fallout from Beijing’s self-inflicted defeat to Dalian Aerbin is raked over, and a Shanghai Derby that lived up to all the hype and then some is gleefully relived by Ultra. All that and more more more this week, tell us what you think in the comments section if you can be arsed. Happy drinking!

Bcheng: So it’s back in the pub after the May Day holiday and we have two Chinese sides through to the Round of 16, with the two other sides both reaching 7 points, but falling just short. A good showing for the CSL, no?

Shanghai Ultra: Yeah man, a great show, and even although Sainty and Guizhou didn’t make it, they made a respectable effort, especially considering they hadn’t played in Asia before. They did a lot better than more seasonsed CSL clubs have done in recent years.

B: Certainly, Guizhou falling a point short and Jiangsu equalling Buriram on points and head-to-head, but losing on the second tiebreaker, goal difference, only due to the beating they took on matchday 1.

S: Yeah that was rough, but they leave with heads held high.

B: Yes, good on them. Now its up to Guangzhou and Beijing to fly the flag for the CSL. Guangzhou will have to deal with the travel fatigue of going to Australia to face off against Central Coast Mariners, while Guoan have it easier when it comes to travel but harder on the pitch, taking on FC Seoul.

S: Those are both hard ties, I’d say Evergrande would have enough to see off the Aussies, for Guoan, a tougher tie, but they should take confidence from their win over Ulsan, if they can beat one Korean team, they can beat another.

B: Evergrande should handle CCM, though the travel may hurt them in the league. For the Beijingers, they did manage a draw and a win against Pohang, who are flying high in the K-League. FC Seoul struggled a little bit after that impressive win against Jiangsu, but they will be very tough tie for Guoan.

S: Yeah, so how far do you think each team can go?

B: I think it depends on how Evergrande’s draw goes, but I could see them going out in the semifinals. For Guoan, I think they’ve probably made it as far as they’re going to, though I didn’t think there was a chance in hell they’d get out of the group stage.

S: I have a feeling Evergrande might go all the way. They are playing much better this season so far compared to Lippi’s first few months in charge. And in Elkeson they have a player who, if he keeps going the way he is going, might just attract a serious offer from Europe.

B: I’m not sure if they are able to change their registration now and get Elkeson into the side, it would make a big difference if they can, but I still see Evergrande struggling, especially if they meet a strong “West Asian” side.

S: I think its East Asian sides they need to worry about, given that they have dominated the winners list of the competition in recent years.

B: I’m only pointing that out because China always seems to struggle with the Middle Eastern heat and the long flights, Evergrande did last year as well. But you’re right, if they were to meet a team like Kashiwa, it could spell trouble. The interesting thing is that this year’s Round of 16 doesn’t see much of Asia’s “traditional” East Asian powers. Only 2 Korean sides and 1 Japanese side in the Round of 16.

S: Right, the J-League teams seem to have lost their way a bit in recent seasons. But let’s talk about China’s role in the ACL – I think China could really take the competition to the next level if its teams start winning it. Some big name players and huge attendances.

B: I think you’re right, but we’ll have to see if the CSL can maintain the good results seen this season, and if one or more sides can go deep in the competition.

S: Yep. There’s so many good things can come of it. It’s good for the ACL as it brings more fans and raises the profile of the competition. And it would be good for football in general in China, it would give the game some much needed self-respect and help Chinese domestic football attract more fans. So dare you say “jia you Guangzhou” B?

B: Absolutely not. Yes, I can see how its good for the CSL to have a team do well, but I’m not a fan of the league, my passions run too deep. Plus, we can go into the whole argument if the “Evergrande formula” is good for the Chinese game or not.

S: How shocking! I’m appalled by your lack of support for the motherland, B.

B: It kinda pains me, because I’ve sat down with their fans a few times and they are great guys, but they have so many players who are just guys CSL fans love to hate and, beyond that, I just don’t think Evergrande’s good for Chinese football.

S: I think the arguments about Evergrande being good for the game are similar to the Anelka / Drogba thing. I don’t think its sustainable for any benefactor to throw money into a club. It may work for a while shorter term, but I think such investments are only worthy if they are done in such a way that helps the club grow so that it can support itself to remain at the level the benefactor elevated it to. Right now I have a lot of doubts in my mind that this is the case at Evergrande. But I do think short-term it has been a good thing simply because there are more bums on seats and China is becoming respected on the Asian stage.

B: With their win in the Guangzhou derby, Evergrande once again goes top of the table. It’s easy to imagine they’ll remain there for the rest of the season, especially as they have a game in hand.

S: Yes I’m afraid so. As I said a couple of weeks ago, I thought Evergrande were a dead-cert for the league. You said it was early days, I agreed, but we are running out of weeks to say its still early.

B: I was hoping other clubs would be able to put up a fight, but it doesn’t seem to be the case. It’s been crazy how dominant Evergrande (well, Elkeson) has been this season. They simply don’t give the weaker sides a chance to get into the match. It’s been impressive. It’s a two team race at the top, Shandong will stay in it for awhile, but unless we see major changes during the summer transfer window or an injury or two, it’s going to be hard to stop Evergrande.

S: Yeah. Elkeson could play in any league in the world and make at least a decent fist of it. In the CSL he’s unstoppable. His goal in the Guangzhou derby was tremendous, that kind of combination of skill and power is seldom seen. He’s on what, 12 goals already? Good lord. Speaking of the Guangzhou derby, we were locked out of the pub last week, that load of rabble rousers in Guangzhou pulled a fast one on us. But they did a great job in the Pub, the lads down there, don’t you agree?

B: Yeah, it was fun to actually read one of these instead of babble in the pub. I think pretty much all their predictions were spot on, but no surprise there, R&F are a team that is lost.

S: I think so, I think they are a bit like Sainty, a club which over-achieved last year and are finding life tougher this year. But, It was great to hear other takes on the game here, for me I’m always hearted by other foreigners in China taking the time to go and see games and get into it, my personal crusade against the EPL is gathering strength and continues apace….

B: Very true, it’s great to see. Speaking of R&F and Jiangsu, there are a lot of similarities there, interestingly enough those two sides face off this weekend in Nanjing.

S: Another smooth Pub-style suege! It’s a pity Donald isn’t in the pub at the moment, he’d be able to say something more insightful and useful about the match than I could.

B: R&F’s problems are too deep, I don’t see that changing this weekend. But we talked a little about the Guangzhou derby, I’d be remiss if we didn’t address the Shanghai derby.

S: You would be, and I think for once the usual hype which has surrounded Shenhua in recent times was lived up to. It was a tremendous game indeed, I was talking to our East Asia man Pedro this morning, he felt it was a great game to see even if he was gutted by the result.

B: I missed the match but it seems like it had it all.

S: It pretty much did – sendings off, penalties, controversy, great goals, a comeback. I actually was with a couple of Canadians who had never been to a game before, they were completely over-awed by the whole experience and said it was quite unlike anything they had witnessed before.

B: Shenhua have me utterly dumbfounded. I am amazed how good they’re playing this year, one of the few sides who are undefeated.

S: I can only say I’m flabbergasted also. I mean that is four games we have come back from behind to either draw or win. And I think only really the Shandong game did luck play a significant part. There’s definitely a team spirit about the place, you can see it on the players faces, there is good chemistry, even little things like this,  Gio Moreno messing about with Song Boxuan when he’s being interviewed pitch side, it’s good to see.

B: It’s amazing to see. Shenhua has lost one of the world’s best players, have gone through so much, and yet are playing even better than last season. It seems like all the issues they’ve had have brought the team together.

S: I think so. I mean, I always think I’m reasonably objective about Shenhua in my reports and writings, but I really never expected this kind of outcome to the first quarter of the season. The key man has been Firas, he is so unselfish on the pitch and such an intelligent player, I think he has helped not only with his goals, assists, but also his attitude. He looks like a man glad to be playing football again after languishing in Iraq last year. I think Drogba and Anelka leaving have told us an awful lot about the importance of the psychology of team dynamics.

B: Yes, it’s amazing to have a guy like Farias, who was willing to play despite not being paid, and that sort of attitude shows how much these guys care. I think the punishment and all the crap has served as motivation for the whole side. I expect they’ll keep things going this weekend at Wuhan. Are you making the trip?

S: I am indeed, as a matter of fact I’m leading a party of six foreign fans there, I was reluctantly announced head of the “Shenhua Element Crew” by the Lanmo top lads this year. So I believe this could be the first “official” foreign fans group to follow a Chinese club to an away game, we are going alongside 100 Shenhua fans, its a good showing for long-distance match.

B: It should be a good time, especially because its likely you’ll see the boys take all three points.

S: Well, its Shenhua, so despite morale being sky high, and the fairly amazing start to the season, unpleasant surprises are always around the corner at Hongkou. But you’re right, Wuhan have been shambolic so far, a draw for us would be a dissapointment I have to admit.

B: Nothing was quite as shambolic as Guoan losing their own undefeated record last weekend when they put out a reserve side to face Dalian Aerbin and were rightly crushed 3-0.

S: Yes, if I could just make a final point about Shenhua if I may before we move on, looking at the CSL table right now its a fantastically weird experience, Shenhua flying high above Jiangsu Sainty and Guangzhou R&F despite a 6-point deduction. But back to Beijing, yeah, that was a sore one, its kind of bizarre seeing teams in Asia put out a weak side in the league to boost chances in the ACL.

B: We’ve had the discussion before about the number of games shouldn’t be a factor, but I think it is. However, I think Guoan was far too cautious, only playing one regular starter against Aerbin, than they needed to be.

S: I think its ridiculous to be honest with you. I mean, I’m glad they are taking the ACL seriously, but at such an early point in the season it looks as if they are throwing in the towel in the CSL already.

B: I have a feeling the club had a hand in that, though perhaps it was the manager. In any case, it was money over results. The most disappointing thing is that it really didn’t help, Guoan looked flat against Sanfrecce and failed to win, which would have seen them finish first in the group and taking on a far weaker Buriram.

S: Right. I would say the club leaned on the manager to rest players but of course we don’t really know. Either way I don’t think its good, a pro team should be able to handle two games in one week. It’s not like its the end of the season and there’s loads of cancelled fixtures being squeezed in.

B: I don’t think Chinee players can handle it, at least its not something most have ever dealt with before. In any case, the ACL is working out to be almost a negative for Guoan. A manageable May is turning into a nightmare.

S: They should be able to handle it, they are professionals.

B: In any case, it’s going to make a mess of the fixture list,expect lots of changes in the next few weeks.

S: Why do you think Chinese players can’t handle two games in one week?

B: Few of them have ever experienced it, the CSL usually has just one or two midweek matches a season and it’s too simplistic to say “two games in a week”, often times its more like three in a week. Guoan will have played three matches in eight days.

S: If they just have two or three mid-week games a season, then surely that means they are less tired in general, no?

B: These guys are creatures of habit, they are used to a certain amount of recovery time, even outside of the physical side of things, there’s mental aspects of preparing for a match. The ACL takes an obvious toll on teams, its something that every player, every manager regularly talks about. Theoretically, sure, Chinese players should be able to handle two matches in a week from time to time, but when you look at the congestion the ACL creates at times, we’re talking a lot of football. In April, Guoan had a point where they played 5 matches in 15 days, that’s a pretty intense pace. Especially when this isn’t something that these guys do all the time. Not even touching on the difference in conditioning in the CSL. It’s easy to say, look at what they do in Europe, why can’t these guys do it, but it’s different.

S: It’s different in that the CSL players don’t have to play as many games, the only thing they have in their favour is longer travelling distances for ACL games.

B: And longer travelling distances to domestic matches, different conditions, different training programs. It’s night and day.

S: The longer travelling distances to domestic games applies in a lot of cases, but what do you mean by different conditions and training progams? I’m confused.

B: Chinese clubs not named Guangzhou Evergrande travel commercially, which isn’t typically the case in Europe. Chinese training often times is less intense because they don’t have the demanding schedule.

S: So why doesn’t Guoan train it’s players properly instead of dropping them for crucial league games?

B: I don’t understand what you’re trying to get at. I disagree with Guoan’s decision to make 10 changes and rest their entire side against Aerbin, it was stupid and influenced by money, no matter if the decision came from the club or the manager. Further, it’s a decision that appears not to have paid off, as they didn’t play well in midweek. But that’s not this theoretical discussion you want to have about why Europeans can play two games in a week and Chinese can’t. Forcing someone who is used to playing 90 minutes in a week to then go out and play 120 is going to cause them to be tired. It’s why players and managers often talk about the added demands of the ACL on their team.

S: Sure, but I’m just saying there is no reason why professional players should not be able to play two games a week during some parts of the season, no matter where they are from. If Chinese players can’t handle it, it means they are either not working hard enough or the system ain’t right.

B: I get that you’re trying to attack the Chinese system, but this is one place where it’s not appropriate to do so in my opinion.

S: Why not?

B: I think I’ve presented my argument above. It’s too simplistic to want to put the blame on the CFA and the “Chinese system.” When you double up the amount you’re playing, it’s going to take time to adjust. Nothing can replicate the physical and emotional aspects of going from one to two.

S: They know the situation with the ACL, why not change their training situation to match the higher demands?

B: Is this going anywhere?

S: Sorry, but I am just trying to understand what you are saying, because I think this is an important debate about Chinese football – and this is what this pub is for. If I undersstand correctly, the only difference between European players… no lets say players playing in Europe, and players playing in China, is that there are longer travel distances for continental and domestic games, right? Because everything else you said it seems that these things could be changed.

B: The difference is that those players regularly play more than one match a week and have built up a tolerance and the ability to recover faster. You can train all you want, but training is not the same as playing in serious matches. Guoan played 8 matches in April, for a club anywhere in the world, that’s a lot of matches. There are teams in the top European leagues that won’t have played that many matches in a single month.

S: That is a lot of games for any club anywhere, but what I’m talking about is more general and not so much Beijing’s individual circumstance. You are right to say there is a big difference between playing games and training, but it seems to me that the players still should be able to handle it better, we would really need to speak to pros themselves to know the actual reality of how players respond to demands of more games. It would be interesting to compare this situation with Japan and Korea don’t you think? I don’t have much knowledge of what’s going on over there.

B: I’m not sure what the situation is either, the K-League plays slightly less games than China, the J-League plays slightly more. I do know that you regularly hear CSL players talking about the added demands of the ACL.

S: Yup. So what is the CSL demanding this weekend? Anything catch you fancy?

B: If you’re only picking one match, Guizhou hosting Aerbin is probably the one worth watching, though if you like goals, Evergrande’s where it’s at. They’re hosting Tianjin and it may get ugly.

S: Yeah Tianjin are really struggling, Evergrande are hitting form, it would be a brave man to predict even a point for the visitors.

B: Expect Evergrande to run wild, 3-0 at least.

S: Probably. Guizhou Aerbin is an intriging clash, Hoarau seems to be finding his feet for Aerbin, he scored a very good goal last weekend.

B: Not last weekend, Guoan made a mockery of themselves, but Hoarau wasn’t involved in it. In fact, he missed a number of easy opportunities to get on the score sheet.

S: Wait, I’m getting confused with the previous week I think. Did you write a report for the Guoan game?

B: No, it was too frustrating to relive.

S: That’s perfectly understandable. When it happens to Shenhua, I tend to use it an a way to vent at under performing individuals. Well, the fixture card looks a bit tame this weekend, but that tends to be the way of it after derby weekend’s isn’t it?

B: That is the case, though things in the pub were anything but tame this week. A rare intensity, maybe that comes from a week off.

S: Probably, it just reflects the fact that we want the game to be better here, I’m always willing to review what I think about things when new information comes to light, I do agree that there is a lot of simplistic thinking when it comes to identifying the ills of Chinese football.

B: I think there were different ills at hand in Guoan’s decision, whether it was the club wanting the sponsorship money due if they get out of the group stage or Stanojevic focused on the major bonus he got for fulfilling the main task the club gave him this year, it was due to money.

S: Yeah there were different aspects to it, what can you tell us about the general feeling on the terraces? Were the fans pissed off about fielding a weakened team in order to boost ACL chances?

B: The anger was overwhelming, it’s understood that some of the older players will be rested, but when you rest the goalie, when you rest a warrior like Darko Matic who has only missed 6 matches in 5 seasons, it’s insane.

S: I’m glad to hear the fans didn’t take it lying down. Certainly I’d be appalled. It would be interesting to know what the players themselves actually thought of it, whilst they may, or may not have felt they needed the benefit of the rest, I’m sure they want to win honours, but this decision hurt the teams ability to stay in the CSL championship race.

B: It’s arguable how long Guoan’s title hopes could go on for, but yes, this pretty much removes them from the title race and there was no need to do so.

S: Right, and if they can’t stay in the CSL title race for that long, then the ACL isn’t a realistic aim either. It’s dissapointing indeed. Well, it’s been a great discussion, have we missed anything?

B: I think we’ve covered a lot of ground, let’s finish up these pints and head out. We’ve had an interesting, equally intense difference of opinions on fans, though I think that will have to wait for another time.

S: Yeah, that’s a timely call mate. Cheers to the pub and cheers to the weekend!

B: 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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