Beijing Guoan fell to a 3-0 defeat at Guangzhou Evergrande’s Tianhe Stadium on Wednesday night in a game that only served to show the clear gulf in class between the two sides at the present moment. There were brief moments in the early stages where it had looked like the capital side may at least be able to test the league leaders, with a high-octane opening seeing the game spill from end-to-end. However, once the first real chance of the game fell to the hosts and Sun Xiang had volleyed home, Evergrande were in control.
The game continued to be a spectacle to behold for the neutrals, for a while at least. However, while Guoan were limited to a tame Kanoute effort and a Zhang Xizhe shot from the corner of the box, Evergrande were cutting through the Beijing defence with consummate ease. But for a couple of impressive saves from Yang Zhi and a sloppy final pass from Elkeson, the score could have been much bigger—even before the visiting goalkeeper was given his marching orders. Yang could have no complaints, either. With the masterful Dario Conca having played through Elkeson, the Beijing ‘keeper proceeded to bring the Brazilian down with the goal gaping. At that point, with Conca soon to convert the penalty, it was game over.
Elkeson would eventually add a third in the second half after excellent work from Zhang Linpeng at right-back—with the China international once more back in form at both ends of the pitch. The scoreline, though, flattered Guoan, with Zheng Zhi having struck the bar, while Rong Hao, Zhao Xuri and substitute Zheng Long contrived to miss a series of golden chances. Aleksander Stanojevic’s side will have travelled home battered and bruised, but they are lucky that the damage was so limited.
Taking on Evergrande at their own game was a brave mov, but, perhaps, the correct decision. While both sides created chances early on, the difference between the two sides was simply the contrasting standards of defending. While Sun Xiang was left completely unmarked to open the scoring, for example, moments earlier at the other end, Zhang Linpeng had covered across from right-back to block a shot from Kanoute on the other side of the area. Had he not, the game could have been a very different affair. Evergrande’s remarkable record of just eight goals conceded in 18 games is about more than being simply “a better side”, though. They do concede attacking opportunities to their opponents, but they have four of the league’s very best defenders and China’s leading goalkeeper Zeng Cheng. Any opportunities, at least while the game is still a contest, have to be earned by the attacking side.
Guoan, on the other hand, cannot boast such defensive riches. Young Uzbeki defender Yegor Krimets will be the easy target for criticism, having left Elkeson completely unmarked in the build up to the penalty. However, he was far from alone in putting in an abject display on the night. Guoan’s full-backs have long been an unresolved, but yet another transfer window has passed with no improvements being made. Zhang Xinxin had a terrible time at left-back on Wednesday, finding himself out of position on several occasions in defence, while completely ineffective as an attacking force. He continually falls short of the required standard against better opponents. Zhou Ting on the right-flank, meanwhile, was better positioned than his colleague, but was left continually exposed by Shao Jiayi’s inability to track the forward runs of Sun Xiang. Both for the opening goal and the build-up to the penalty, Zhou had tracked infield to help cover Elkeson, leaving Sun in acres of room on the Evergrande left. For a player of Shao Jiayi’s experience, it is simply inexcusable.
Krimets aside, the remaining three members of the Guoan defensive line have a combined age of 97 years, yet no real first-team reinforcements have been brought in. Hong Kong international Lee Chi Ho, 30, was recruited from South China as cover at right-back, but is unlikely to help the club move forward to the next level, while Chinese social media has also seen suggestions of striker Zhang Chengdong, recently repatriated from Germany, being used as a full-back. Whether it happens or not, remains to be seen, but China can ill-afford another striker being lost to play on the flanks. The truth is that the club have failed to strengthen where most needed and, instead, have recruited two high-profile forwards this summer—despite already owning two impressive foreign strikers. Reinforcements were needed, but defence should have been the first priority. To then see the club’s best young defender Lei Tenglong head on loan to Maritimo in Portugal, as is the suggestion, only exacerbates the problem.
Guoan do not spend the same sums of money as Evergrande, but that is little excuse for their inactivity. The club has thrown money at foreign players over the last 18-months, with many sticking around for just half a season. Andre Lima, for example, cost the club over £1 million in December, only to be discarded after just 600 minutes playing time in favour of Peter Utaka at a cost of a further £3 million. While rivals have strengthened, it is questionable whether Guoan are any stronger than they were last season. The loss of midfielder Xu Liang has not been accounted for, while an ageing defence takes some of the shine away from the club’s impressive forward line. The club simply had to strengthen this summer if they are to guarantee Champions League football next season, but it hasn’t happened. They should still qualify, given the quality they possess and their current league position, but it will be far from clear cut. Opponents Evergrande, meanwhile, will continue to play in a league of their own.