With the new season coming up just around the corner, it’s time for to examine the prospects for last year’s Chinese Super League and Asian Champions League double winners, Guangzhou Evergrande.
The manager: On a glorious night last November, Guangzhou Evergrande manager Marcello Lippi added the Asian Champions League to his already illustrious haul of honours, bringing international triumph to a Chinese club for only the second time. In the process he became the first manager ever to win premier continental club trophies on more than one continent, having won the European one with Juventus 17 years earlier. In his season and a half so far in Canton, the 2006 World Cup winner has developed a level of tactical flexibility far above that of his competitors and improved an already well-honed squad, with even veterans like Zheng Zhi improving immensely under his tutelage. The Italian had stated his intention to retire when his contract ran out at the end of this coming season, but surprised everyone on deadline day by signing a new three year deal – a real boost to already high morale at the club.
The history: Guangzhou Football Team had spent most of its time as a professional outfit in the second tier of Chinese football before Evergrande Real Estate Group took over in 2010. Since then, Project Asian Super Club has ploughed through any and all obstacles (not least financial) to win three consecutive Chinese Super Leagues and China’s second ever continental club title. The nationalistic “Zhongguo Hengda” marketing towards the end of their 2013 ACL run grated with some, but they have certainly gained a lot of support and some level of international recognition, particularly after they put up a very strong fight against South American champions Atlético Mineiro in December’s Club World Cup.
The team: 2012 saw a lot of chopping and changing in team selection after Lippi took over midway through the season. The required stability was added last year, with a core of thirteen squad members being used much more regularly than any others throughout the season. Of these only Dario Conca has departed, and there is no real reason yet to think any of the remaining twelve will drop far out of first team contention. However owner Xu Jiayin is pushing for more youth involvement this time around, with increased bonuses if players under 21 make an appearance. Expect the older, less effective substitutes from last season to drift further to the margins in favour of young blood.
The stadium: Tianhe Stadium has a seating capacity of 58,500, but despite often appearing very full (bar the away section), an official attendance of above 40,000 is rarely announced. Exceptions last season were made for the visits of Shandong Luneng and locals rivals R&F, and some ACL knock-out stage games. There’s always a great atmosphere, but then there’s little in the world easier to be these days than an Evergrande fan: it’s over a year since home fans witnessed a loss.
The changes: Dario Conca was generally agreed upon as the most influential performer for Evergrande last season and his return to old haunt Fluminense this winter left quite a hole to fill, but the marquee replacement Alessandro Diamanti is of a similar quality to the departed Argentinian. Wuhan right-back and captain Mei Fang has been brought in too, though Lippi seems to see him primarily as a central defender. In midfield, Qingdao Jonoon have blocked the completion of Liu Jian’s move until at least the summer (how can one club get away with initiating contractual disputes with so many players?) and Qin Sheng has been relegated to the reserves. While new addition Renê Júnior plays in defensive midfield, he has been left out of the spring ACL squad, leaving only Zheng Zhi and Zhao Xuri as established in the shielding role. Finally, deadline day saw 24 year old Dalian Aerbin benchwarmer Dong Xuesheng brought in, probably to cover for the still injured Zheng Long though he seems superfluous.
The foreigners: Muriqui of course was the ACL Player of the Tournament last year, but has appeared less comfortable of late. Kim Young-Gwon is first choice at the back and Diamanti will likely become irreplaceable, but looks like he works better in a more advanced role than Conca used to take. The relative lack of midfielders with strong defensive capabilities in the squad may result in regular league run-outs for “fifth man” Renê Júnior, at the expense of forwards Elkeson or, more likely, Muriqui.
The star: After an incredible initial burst, Elkeson won top CSL goalscorer at a canter last season, with Conca actually outscoring him in the latter half . There’s no reason to think he won’t have another excellent season, but current Italian international Diamanti seems like a man who will want to score lots of goals himself and who may well be better at it. There’s always the big question of how a new arrival will settle in China, but the ex-West Ham man’s wife being Taiwanese might make it easier for him to adapt than for most. Working under his home country’s most legendary manager should also smooth the process. Among the Chinese players, if Huang Bowen keeps improving at his current rate, he could make the attacking midfield space his own and possibly push ahead in the pecking order of some current first choice forwards.
The youngster: When Liao Lisheng was brought on at half time in last week’s Melbourne Victory game, there was quite a sense of shock in the stands; it was only the 20 year old defensive midfielder’s second appearance in the senior side since his arrival in late 2012. If few anticipated his appearance, all were amazed by the accomplished and composed figure he cut. Yang Chaosheng and Hu Weiwei impressed me most of the youths who appeared last year, but glances were rather fleeting. Slots up front may be even more limited this time around, and Hu didn’t look comfortable as a wing back in the Super Cup either. 45 minutes is very little to go on, but Liao’s position is where there are likely to be more opportunities until the summer at least.
The x-factor: Even as income swells, here is some trimming of expenditure going on. Bonuses have been reined in from the very high levels of last season, which may cause some disgruntlement. In extending his contract, Lippi has reportedly reduced both his income and responsibilities, with Massimiliano Maddaloni moving from assistant to ‘executive’ coach. The suggestion is that the former Juventus backroom man is being groomed as successor and may even take charge of the first team, as he did away to Shanghai East Asia last year, more often. To what degree this happens and the effect on performances will be interesting to follow over the season.
The prediction: I’m not a betting man, but it’s hard to see beyond Evergrande retaining the league title this season. Shandong under Cuca could well become serious contenders, but their incoherent display against Buriram showed little immediate promise. Guoan have good players but lack depth and an established manager, while Guizhou Renhe haven’t really strengthened enough. Other teams might challenge, but it would take something seriously special to usurp the champions this year. Knock-out competitions are always a bit of a lottery but Guangzhou Football Team have again at least as good a chance as anyone in these too.