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CSL 2014 Previews: Beijing Guoan

The manager: Like Marcello Lippi, Gregorio Manzano had never managed outside his home country before coming to China, unlike Lippi he doesn’t come here with a mantle full of trophies. Manzano’s been managing in Spain for over 30 years, with multiple stints at Mallorca and Atletico Madrid, but only has a Copa del Rey to show for it. He comes in as an unknown entity, but Beijing fans are hopeful.

The history: Now in its 22nd year, Beijingers are proud of their club and its long (by Chinese standards) history, especially as the Shenhua name change means Guoan is the only CSL club to keep its name since the start of professional football in China. Despite this, things haven’t always been bright in the capital, having only won one title (2009), though the club used to have a reputation as cup kings, winning the CFA Cup three times (1996, 1997, 2003). Recent years have found Guoan around the top of the table, with a near lock on an ACL position.

The team: Beijing has one of the strongest starting XI in the CSL, but depth has always been an issue. To some extent that’s been taken care of this year, the next problems to focus on are road performance and consistency. Dominant at home, all seven of the side’s losses last year came on the road, too often against sides they should have beaten. While Beijing manages to do well against top sides, dropping points against the likes of Liaoning, Hangzhou, Shenxin, Changchun, and Qingdao can’t happen again if they want to be in the title race. If Manzano can work out these kinks, it will be a good year for the Men in Green.

The stadium: Worker’s Stadium, or as it’s most often referred to Gongti, is a historic ground by Chinese standards. Built in 1959 as one of the nation’s 10 major construction projects for the 10th anniversary of the People’s Republic, it has had a part in pretty much every major sporting event that has been held in China, including the 1990 Asian Games, the 2004 Asian Cup, and the 2008 Olympics. It’s current capacity is 65,000+, but because of the need for “harmony” in Beijing, actual match capacity is limited to around 50,000.

The changes: There is a lot to talk about on this front, with personal conflicts meaning Alexsandar Stanojevic is out despite satisifying the club’s expectations. Manzano takes on the position, the third foreign manager in three years, needing to meet high hopes. Freddie Kanoute (big loss) and Egor Krimets (not a loss) are out, replaced by Pablo Batalla and Ha Dae-sung (both excellent additions). On the domestic front, the club got rid of a number of touted youngsters who didn’t really pan out, the only loss that could have an impact is Wang Xiaolong, who they let go to Guangzhou R&F. The club brought in Song Boxuan and Li Yunqiu, inspired pieces of business, as well as Zhao Hejing for defensive depth, while nobody knows what to expect out of Chen Zhizhao. Li and Chen represent rare moves for Guoan, adding two southern players.

The foreigners: Croatian defensive midfielder Darko Matic is still in Beijing, he has more years with his club than any active foreigner as he’s now entering his sixth season in the capital, though many suspect this will be his last. Speedster Joffre Guerron is going to play a big part in the side, he has a nose for goal and his quickness always makes him a threat on the counter attack. With two goals in two matches already this season, expectations are high. Peter Utaka left Aerbin in midseason last year to pair with manager Stanojevic once again, but now Stano’s out and Utaka may end up the odd foreigner out for much of the season, unless Manzano sits Darko and plays Piao Cheng in that position. While previously that would be unthinkable, the arrival of FC Seoul captain Ha Dae-sung could make it a reality, especially as many are talking up the relationship between the Korean and Piao, who is ethnically Korean. Finally, Pablo Batalla is the last foreigner in the mix, the Argentine comes with big expectations from Bursaspor after a massive season last year.

The star: Zhang Xizhe reached double digits in both goals and assists last season and was looked at by many European sides, including Celtic. However, the 23-year-old will remain in China for at least one more season and Guoan fans are very thankful for that. If he can match the creativity he demonstrated last season, Guoan will be very difficult to beat.

The youngster: Honestly, anyone under 23 is unlikely to get real playing time. The aforementioned Zhang is obviously going to be important to Guoan this year, while fellow 23-year-old Li Yunqiu will help with depth, but his greatest impact is likely in years to come. At 24, Piao Cheng is stretching the “youngster” label a bit, but this year is a make-or-break season for him. He’s yet to have a big year like Zhang’s 2013 and he’s getting to the point where people are wondering if he’s going to reach his true potential.

The X factor: Batalla arrives in Beijing to mixed opinions, highly touted foreigners tend not to pan out for the Men in Green, but fans back in Turkey were sad to see the playmaker go. The Argentine provided 20 goals and 19 assists in all competitions for Bursaspor last season and had four goals and four assists in 13 appearances this year. If he can adjust to China and put up stats like that, Guoan may be thinking of more than just an ACL spot. Even more than Batalla, Chen Zhizhao is the definition of an x-factor. He scored 10 goals the last time he played in the CSL, however that was four years ago as he sat out 2011 and then spent two years sitting on the bench in Brazil.

Best starting XI: Goalkeeper – Yang Zhi; Defense – Zhou Ting, Xu Yunlong, Lang Zheng, Zhang Xinxin; Midfield – Zhang Chengdong, Darko Matic/Piao Cheng, Ha Dae-sung, Zhang Xizhe, Pablo Batalla; Striker – Joffre Guerron

The prediction:  Finishing in an ACL spot is a must for Guoan and this season they should be able to do that once again. Even the most optimistic fan is unlikely to think Beijing can win the league this season, they have the talent in the starting XI and have added depth (plus the long summer break will give the veterans time to keep fresh), but they’ll need to reach a new level of consistency. In the ACL, the knockout stage is within reach and from there it all depends on the draw, but it won’t be easy. The biggest hope of a trophy each year is the domestic cup, though with the top sides all on the same side of the bracket, it’s going to be tough.

Brandon Chemers aka B. Cheng aka A Modern Lei Feng – is a name which may be familiar to many in the Chinese blogosphere. He currently serves as Editor-in-Chief for Wild East Football and is one of the lonely souls writing about Chinese football in English for the last 10 years. Chemers' credentials are second to none – his former blog focused not only on the fortunes of his beloved Beijing Guoan FC, but a multitude of other aspects of Beijing life. He’s deservedly built a reputation in the Chinese blogosphere as an insightful observer of not only Chinese football, but also the wider picture of life in modern China and its many layers. For WEF, beyond writing about Guoan, he often focuses on fan culture and the business of Chinese football.

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