Guangzhou R&F recorded their best ever China Super League finish, sixth, but it still felt like a disappointing year because either side of a run of fantastic mid-season form were two patches of terrible results which meant the Cantonese side missed their objective of ACL qualification.
Guangzhou R&F returned to Yuexiushan for the 2013 CSL season and had retained the services of all five foreign players from last year, even though Brazilian midfielder Jumar was still injured, as well as adding several domestic signings. Li Yan’s loan deal was made permanent and his Guangzhou Evergrande teammates Jiang Ning, Li Jianhua and Wu Pingfeng all joined him in the blue and white of R&F as did Dalian Shide’s former captain Zhang Yaokun.
First third: Farias
During the 2012 season R&F had been forced to move to the University City stadium while Yuexiushan was redeveloped but the spiritual home of Cantonese football was ready to stage the opening game of the 2013 season. As well as improving the playing surface, plastic seats had been installed on top of the old concrete bleachers and with the sun shining and more supporters groups than ever there was an air of optimism before the match against Liaoning.
Sadly Liaoning hadn’t read the script and James Chamanga scored after three minutes to stun the home crowd and give Sergio Farias a shock from which he never seemed to recover. Woeful displays against Hangzhou and Shanghai East Asia followed before rumours of dressing room unrest surfaced after a home loss in the Cantonese derby. R&F had to wait until their sixth match for a win, away to Wuhan, and although they would beat Beijing at home this followed a dreadful away performance at Jiangsu and after taking only eight points from ten games Farias was sacked.
Middle third: Li Bing and Sven
Li Bing was made interim manager and the players responded to the change by beating Dalian and only being denied an away win at Changchun by a late equaliser. This was to be the start of a fantastic period of summer results which continued as ex-England manager Sven Goran Eriksson left the latest post in his global football journey, technical director at Al-Nasr FC in Dubai, to take over the reins at R&F.
Whilst the removal of Farias’ sometimes overbearing personality had lifted the mood and allowed Li Bing to coax better performances out of his players, Eriksson went one step further and changed from Farias’ 4-2-3-1 to a 4-4-2 with Brazilian Rafael Coelho playing off main striker Yakubu. This was an instant hit and Coelho scored six goals in Sven’s first five games as his team shot up the table, eventually reaching fourth by mid-summer. Stretching back to Farias’ last home game R&F put together a 7 game 100% home record during this period and collected 23 points from the middle third of the season.
The Swede had little opportunity to bring in new players during the summer window and was only able to sign Australian defender Eddy Bosnar after the club released Jumar who had suffered another injury blighted season. Bosnar scored a thunderbolt of a freekick against Shanghai East Asia but then proceeded, John Arne Riise –esque, to take freekicks from almost anywhere in the opposition half for the rest of the season and had no further successes.
Final third: Limping over the line
The more time Sven had with his squad, the more his 4-4-2 formation had been shifting slowly towards the 4-2-3-1 favoured by his predecessor Farias and the transition was completed when Coelho’s form dipped and he was dropped which left Yakubu again looking an isolated figure up front. With the Nigerian not being the most active of strikers and Davi struggling to adapt to his new, deeper midfield role there were problems ahead for R&F.
A 5-1 demolition of Wuhan would be the high-point for R&F as it left them in contention for ACL qualification with games against the teams immediately above them to come where they, and Eriksson, could make a real statement of intent. Unfortunately this statement read “R&F are not good enough to qualify for the ACL” as a loss at Tianhe in the derby was followed by a humbling 6-0 away defeat to Beijing and a heavy home loss to Guizhou. The Cantonese were limping towards the finish line but an exciting final day home win over Shanghai Shenhua secured them their highest ever CSL finish and offered a glimpse of what might be to come next year.
In Cheng Yuelei and Shi Xiaotian Guangzhou R&F have two excellent goalkeepers although their back line doesn’t give them all the protection they could wish for; left-back in particular is a problem position but Tang Miao had another excellent season at right back. Li Yan was solid if unspectacular in central midfield and the same could be said of wingers Jiang Ning and Zhang Yuan. Sven-Goran Eriksson tipped the latter for great things but whilst he is undoubtedly talented, right-wing does not seem to be his best position which makes it all the stranger that Wu Pingfeng never got a chance in the first eleven. Lu Lin, another Cantonese hero and fan favourite, put in some superb performances and even when he wasn’t at his best could be relied on to give maximum effort, something that can’t always be said of his side’s main striker. Reserve forward Zhang Shuo can count himself unlucky that he didn’t feature more this season, especially in those games where Sven played 4-4-2.
Focus on Foreigners
Yakubu was the joint third highest scorer in the CSL with fifteen goals but all too often the big Nigerian frontman came down on the wrong side of the fine line between being clam under pressure and appearing lethargic. He and Brazilian Raphael Coelho shared a prolific partnership and although Coelho scored eleven goals in total his form dipped towards the end of the season. His fellow Brazilian midfielder Davi was handed a harsh four match ban early in the season after a red card and then struggled with the defensive side of his game in Sven’s 4-4-2. In contrast to the rest of the team he improved towards the end of the season and put in a fantastic performance against Shenhua on the final day. Defensive midfielder Jumar only played a handful of games in the first half of the season as he struggled to recover from an injury picked up last year and was released in the summer transfer window to make room for Eddy Bosnar. The experienced Australian centre back was a commanding presence in the area but his lack of pace was ruthlessly exposed by Beijing Guoan. Compatriot Roystn Griffiths had a solid season in midfield after overcoming registration issues but looked less assured on the occasions when Sven played him out of position at centre back. Yakubu is still under contract for the 2014 CSL season but it seems none of the others will have their contract renewed so Sven will have plenty of room for manoeuvre in the transfer market.
Work in Progress
R&F improved on last season’s seventh place finish but, just like last year, the statistics from R&F’s season make concerning reading. The Cantonese had the fourth most potent attack but coupled that with the second leakiest defence and so ended the season with a negative goal difference. Of the 47 goals R&F conceded, 15 came from set pieces and whilst the number of goals conceded like this is concerning the manner in which they were scored is even more so as players being unmarked at corners and freekicks was an all too common sight as were poor clearances which allowed the opposition another chance to shoot.
The most concerning statistic is that R&F picked up only two wins on the road in 2013 but did gain more away points than last year thanks to a couple more draws. As Sven-Goran Eriksson has acknowledged, this improvement must be accelerated in 2014 if the Cantonese are to qualify for the ACL.
Despite these failings, Guangzhou R&F recorded their highest ever CSL finish only four points off fourth place which, depending on the CFA Cup result, may be good enough for an ACL place. Whilst these failings are easier to identify than fix, Sven-Goran Eriksson now has the off-season to sign both domestic and foreign players who will fit into his system as the club push for ACL qualification next season.
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