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Atkins: Conca ready to bow out on a high?

When Argentine midfielder Dario Conca joined Guangzhou Evergrande in July 2011, his US$10 million transfer fee and astonishing US$14million-per-year wages left the football world aghast. Conca may have been the Brazilian Championship Player of the Year in 2010, but he had remained a relative unknown outside of South America and, now, was earning more money than many of football’s most recognised names.

Two years on and, while the value of the investment can no doubt be questioned, there can be no doubting Conca’s success in Chinese football. As part of the all-conquering Evergrande side, he has added two Super League titles, one CFA Cup and a Super Cup to his personal trophy cabinet—with the club having been simply untouchable since he joined.

The 2013 season, though, will almost certainly be his final campaign in China, with the player having already expressed his desire to leave at the end of his current contract. Indeed, former employers Fluminense—who have made a couple of previous attempts to return the playmaker to South America—are already believed to be preparing another offer to return him to Rio de Janeiro.

His abilities are well respected within the game. Recently, when talking with China international Sun Ke, he was quick to identify Conca as the toughest opponent he has faced within the CSL over the past few years. He is certainly not alone in thinking so.

“If you give him time, he will punish you.”

Tianjin TEDA midfielder Erik Paartalu helped explain what makes Conca such a difficult opponent, saying: “He is very difficult to defend against. He has a low centre of gravity and a great skill set with which to keep the ball close. If you give him time, he will punish you; either with a penetrating pass for a scoring opportunity or, as we found out, he is capable of finding the top corner from 30-yards.”

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Teammates Elkeson and Muriqui may have taken many of the plaudits this campaign for their scoring feats in the league and Asian Champions League respectively, but there is a real argument that it has been Conca who has been the side’s driving force. His headed finish against Dalian Aerbin in midweek was his ninth league goal of the season, to add to a further seven assists and 45 chances created for teammates (key passes)—no other player has created more. Only teammate Elkeson (24) has been directly responsible for more Super League goals this season than Conca (16), with the Brazilian on course to challenge the league’s goalscoring record this season.

Conca’s strength as a player, though, is that he is able to contribute so much despite playing in a deeper role. As a typical South American No. 10, he is relieved of defensive duties, but is expected to be central to his side when in possession. Conca often drops deep during matches to collect the ball from his side’s central defenders, before carrying the ball forward and surveying the options ahead of him.

Alongside the deeper-lying Zheng Zhi, who also ranks among the most intelligent distributors that the league has to offer, Marcello Lippi is undeniably blessed with the quality of his side’s midfield options. It is no surprise, then, that Evergrande comfortably lead possession statistics with an average of nearly 60 percent this season.

“Frankly, my view on Conca is: he’s brilliant on the field, but difficult off it.”

Conca’s time in China, though, has not always been plain sailing. There have been questions raised over the player’s attitude and, on two occasions, the player has sought to force through a move back to South America. Initially, having fallen out with former coach Lee Jang-Soo in May 2012, Conca was handed a nine-match ban by his club for criticising the Korean on Chinese social media site Weibo. A summer of discontent followed, but he eventually decided to concede defeat and remain in the Far East until the end of his contract.

Six months later, though, the novela began afresh as Conca once more met with Fluminense investors in a bid to arrange a move back to Brazil. Reportedly, the playmaker had even left a note in his apartment to inform Evergrande he would not be returning for the new season, leaving the club publically threatening to take legal action. “Frankly, my view on Conca is: he’s brilliant on the field, but difficult off it,” Guangzhou Evergrande chairman Liu Yongzhuo fumed. “We can all see his performances, he is an exceptional player. Off the pitch, to put it nicely, there is not enough professionalism.”

He may ultimately have returned to Guangzhou with his tail between his legs, but the top assist-maker of the 2012 Super League’s attitude in recent months cannot be faulted. While Chinese media may complain that he chooses to ignore interview requests, it is a reluctance that is perhaps understandable given the trial-by-media he faced during the last off-season—it is worth noting that many of the rumours circulating were never confirmed.

On the pitch, he has been outstanding, particularly last month when Evergrande began to show signs of feeling the strain—although they are admittedly yet to taste defeat in the league. Conca may well depart at the end of the campaign, but he will do so off the back of what has been the best of his three impressively consistent seasons in China to date. His reputation among the club’s supporters is already secure, but there is still chance for the Argentine to write his name indelibly in the club’s history if he can help Evergrande become the first Chinese winners of the Asian Champions League.

The Cantonese side have a very real chance of success, especially with their domestic dominance allowing Lippi to manage his squad as the games begin to mount up. For Evergrande to win, though, they will require their midfield maestro to come to the fore. Conca’s performances tend to set the tone for the whole side and, against better opponents, it is to Conca that Evergrande turn to for inspiration. If these are indeed to be his final months in Guangzhou, the Tianhe Stadium outfit will have a considerable task ahead to ensure he is properly replaced. For all of the club’s other star players, it is Conca that holds the key to their potential continental success.

Based in Guangzhou, Christopher covers Chinese football for a range of media outlets worldwide and is Wild East Football’s lead editor for news content.
 
His work can regularly be seen on ESPN FC, Bleacher Report and Hupu amongst other media outlets, while he has interviewed a number of leading figures in Chinese football.

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