The 2014 Chinese Super League starts next weekend so runs the rule over the “Blue and Whites” in the Cantonese capital, Guangzhou R&F.
The manager: Globe-trotting Sven-Goran Eriksson begins his first full season in charge at Yuexiushan having arrived in June last year. The Swede oversaw an immediate upturn in results but the latter third of the season was more disappointing. Reportedly the club can terminate his contract if R&F don’t qualify for the ACL so Sven will have to draw on all his experience this year.
The history: Guangzhou R&F have only been in the CSL for two seasons, winning promotion by finishing second in China League One in 2011, the same season the side moved from Shenzhen. Outperforming expectations in their debut season in 2012 and more or less conforming to expectations last year, R&F put themselves in contention for an ACL place by late August only for their challenge to fall away in the final months of the season.
The team: Except for the dour performances under Sergio Farias at the start of the 2013 season, R&F have been an exciting team for neutrals to watch as they score a fair amount of goals but concede even more. Indeed, only relegated Wuhan Zull let in more last season. That the Cantonese have managed to finish so high up the table is a credit to their home form and the last two seasons both featured streaks of seven home wins in a row. The team are notoriously bad away from Yuexiushan, though, managing only four away wins in two years.
The stadium: Yuexiushan is a great old stadium in central Guangzhou and renovations before last season added seats on top of the concrete bleachers to improve the matchday experience but there is still nowhere to buy food inside the ground. Despite season tickets going for only 350RMB expect Yuexiushan to be half empty for the majority of games; the one exception being the derby with Guangzhou Evergrande. Tickets officially available from the tent outside the ground on matchdays and unofficially available just outside Sun Yat-Sen Memorial Hall metro station from the legions of touts.
The changes: Four new foreign faces as well as four domestic ones. Left back Jiang Zhipeng’s arrival from Shanghai Shenxin, along with Zhu Baojie, could be the key change as R&F have long been in need of a quality left back. Wang Xiaolong will provide another option out wide whilst second choice goalkeepers have been changed, with Shi Xiaotian out and Zhang Shichang in. Only a few fringe domestic players left so the Chinese contingent has definitely been strengthened.
The foreigners: The same can’t be said of the foreign players though. South Korean international Jang Hyun-Soo will provide much more pace in central defence than Eddy Bosnar did last season and his international colleague Park Jong-Woo will slot straight into central midfield instead of Roystn Griffiths. Replacing the 26 goals scored by Yakubu and Rafael Coelho last year was always going to be the biggest problem and, for all the talk of Sven’s list of big name targets, and how much money the club would spend, in the end a relatively unknown Moroccan and a far from prolific Dane are their replacements. Aberazak Hamdallah appears the better of the two and has a very good scoring record in both Morocco and Norway so could be a useful signing, albeit an expensive one. Ken Ilso Larsen’s record is far from impressive though and it will be no surprise if he is mainly used from the bench. Brazilian midfielder Davi returns for his third year at the club and with Park’s arrival may resume the more advanced midfield role he occupied under Sergio Farias.
The star: Following Yakubu’s move to Qatar this is open to question with Davi, Tang Miao and Jiang Ning competing with new comers Jiang Zhipeng, Park and Jang for the role. In the eyes of the fans, the star of Cantonese super-sub Lu Lin shines more brightly than the rest though.
The youngsters: Jang Hyun-Soo is likely to be the youngest starter, but speaking at the pre-season press conference, Sven talked up the chances of young pacey winger Chang Feiya and central midfielder Wang Xinhui. Although a slightly older player, this could also be the year that Zhang Yuan finally makes the breakthrough he has long been tipped for.
The x factor: Sven spoke last year about needing additional help off the field and the club have fulfilled that need by signing ‘s own Mads Davidsen to a wide-ranging contract. The Dane’s experience on the training field and the analysis room will be needed to quickly form a cohesive side from all the new arrivals.
The prediction: Tellingly the club have toned down their announcements about their previously much trumpeted ambition of ACL qualification as the large number of changes will take time to settle in. With that in mind, 6th place and the blue side of Guangzhou waiting another year for ACL football is the prediction.