The Manager: With the departure of Gao Hongbo following the close of last season, control over the side was handed to his assistant, Xi Zhikang. As the new manager’s only previous experience of first-team management came at rivals Shanghai Shenhua during the 2011 season (in which he was sacked towards the tail-end of the season after results started dropping off and Shenhua ultimately descended the table), it remains to be seen how he might take the team forward this year after Gao’s departure to Jiangsu Sainty. One thing is for certain though; Xi can rely on both the support and advice of founder, owner, and one of Chinese football management’s elder statesman, Xu Genbao. Xu’s successful history in the Chinese Super League (and Chinese football at large) must surely be seen as a positive influence on a side that boasts only one previous year’s experience in the top flight. Nevertheless, how far Xu’s influence will stretch is subject to some conjecture, as East Asia continue to rely heavily on imports from the Genbao academy that fit into the chairman’s footballing philosophy. The owner has form for stepping in when things aren’t going too smoothly, as was the case in 2011, when Jiang Bingyao was given his marching orders after Xu became frustrated with results and took it upon himself to take charge of first-team affairs.
The History: In a word – short. Founder Xu Genbao is famed throughout Chinese football for his formation of the Genbao Football Academy. Established in May 2000, Xu initially had no desires to launch a professional club. However, as years progressed and his group of players developed, the lack of competitive youth football in China forced the owner’s hand, in order to give his academy members invaluable match experience. Thus, in 2005, Shanghai East Asia Football Club was established, playing their first season in the 2006 China League 2. Using a team chiefly comprising players aged 14-17 (including a 14-year-old Wu Lei), East Asia finished their inaugural season in a respectable seventh place. Promotion followed, and the club rapidly grew along with its playing staff, securing a spot in last season’s CSL, in which key man Wu Lei shone on a regular basis. His role in a memorable 6-1 victory over neighbours and rivals Shanghai Shenxin was particularly noteworthy, leading to a comfortable 9th-placed finish.
The Team: Despite losing a number of home-grown players, notably Li Yunqiu (Beijing Guoan) and midfield mainstay Sun Kai (Shanghai Shenxin), East Asia are still able to draw upon a wealth of talented, if inexperienced, youngsters from the Genbao academy. Nonetheless, despite the acquisition of foreign signings, Daniel McBreen (who scored 19 goals in 27 games for former team Central Coast Mariners before a moderately successful loan spell at the club last season) and 31-cap Sweden striker, Tobias Hysen; the solitary domestic signing of Wang Jiayu, returning to his boyhood club, leaves East Asia lacking in proven quality native talent amongst their ranks.
The Stadium: The vast 80,000-seater Shanghai Stadium is an impressive ground, although with an average attendance of just 10,161 last season, the cavernous arena can at times feel somewhat underwhelming. Nonetheless, the East Asia faithful are vocal in their support for the team and as the team enters its second season in the top tier, the hope emanating from inside the club’s hierarchy is that greater coverage and knowledge of the team will result in larger crowd sizes as locals and expats discover a cheaper, and possibly more entertaining (not to mention drama-free) alternative to city rivals Shanghai Shenhua.
The Changes: Mirroring last season’s transfer activity, some observers have been left questioning East Asia’s decisions regarding its domestic playing staff. The signings of foreign forwards, English-born Australian, Daniel McBreen and Sweden international and ex-Sunderland striker, Tobias Hysen, can be considered effective business – offsetting the loss of both Luis Carlos Cabezas and Bernie Ibini-Isei, and adding yet more firepower to an attacking line that already includes last year’s top domestic goal scorer. However, a sizeable list of departures, featuring regular first teamers Li Yunqiu, Sun Kai and Mao Jiakang, as well as promising youngsters like Hu Bowen, has left numerous commentators wondering how these voids will be filled. As fans browse the destitute list of incoming players, they will undoubtedly hope East Asia can supplement the single signing of Wang Jiayu with greater native numbers. Despite the young midfielder’s obvious talents, the side still needs more cover in all areas of the team if they are to make headway on their 9th-placed league position last year.
The Foreigners: Despite a three-month goal drought hampering Daniel McBreen’s impact whilst on loan last season, the veteran forward put in a number of commanding performances. East Asia fans will be hoping he can recover the form that led to him being awarded the golden boot in the 2012-2013 Australian A-League. Depending on form and fitness, however, McBreen may have to settle for a supporting role as Tobias Hysen arrives from IFK Göteborg, having netted 69 times in 172 appearances over six seasons with the Swedish side. The striker found the net twice in Sweden’s final World Cup qualifying game – a 5-3 home defeat against Germany in October, and could prove to be an incredibly shrewd purchase, not least if the club can find a way to accommodate both him and Wu Lei in the same side. Veteran Spanish defender Ibán Cuadrado will again look to use his experience to hassle rival attacks, alongside Ghanaian Ransford Addo, who can sit comfortably in the heart of either defence or midfield.
The Star: Without a doubt, all eyes will be on 15-goal top home-grown scorer, Wu Lei this season, as the young ace looks to build on a remarkable debut Super League season. Wu stole the show for East Asia last year, and many were left surprised that the club managed to keep hold of the highly coveted player, given the raft of departures in the close season. It remains to be seen whether the increased focus on a player reportedly scouted by the likes of Barcelona over the past year will become an unwelcome burden. However, the player dubbed the “Chinese Maradona” has been playing first-team football since the age of 14, and will look to utilise the spotlight being thrust upon him to demonstrate his considerable talent. It is surely only a matter of time before he gets his stated desire to move to one of Europe’s biggest leagues. Wu breaks the mould when it comes to Chinese forwards – many CSL clubs preferring to leave the task of finding the net to experienced foreign imports – and, indeed, alongside new recruit Hysen, he will be looking to forge an exciting partnership that will hopefully see him surpass last season’s goal tally.
The Youngster: With East Asia’s squad comprised predominantly of graduates from Xu Genbao’s academy, the side is littered with hungry, young Chinese players. Naturally, Wu Lei is the exceptional talent amongst the group, although supporters will hope to witness the continued progress of youngsters like Zheng Dalun and Fu Huan, who featured on a number of occasions last term. With the club devoid of any Chinese player over the age of 26, this really is a young and largely inexperienced side, however, this has often led to some inspiring, cavalier performances (as well as several avoidable mistakes borne out of such naivety). If the new recruits from the Genbao academy can step up to the performance levels of previous alumni, East Asia fans and club staff alike may yet have cause for optimism this year.
The X-Factor: The arrival of ex-England international goalkeeper, Ian Walker at Shanghai East Asia may have come as somewhat of a shock to outsiders. Many believe that the impact and effectiveness of his goalkeeping coaching was a key factor in Wang Dalei’s stunning form between the posts for rivals Shanghai Shenhua last year. Shenhua will not only be devastated by the loss of arguably the Super League’s best goalkeeper to Shandong Luneng, but also seeing the seasoned goalkeeper turned coach move across the city to their newest rivals. 23-year-old Yan Junling cut a reasonably steady figure in goal last term and the tactical and positional knowledge, combined with the experience that comes with competing in the Premier League for over 10 years must be seen as a huge boost to a squad lacking in such knowledge. If Walker can maintain his stellar work at his new club, we may yet see another Shanghai based Chinese international goalkeeper.
The Prediction: Balancing the abundance of outgoing domestic players with the addition of valuable international experience has left East Asia fans hopeful of bettering their debut season’s impressive record of 10 wins and 13 losses on their way to securing a solid 9th placed finish. The fixture list has been reasonably kind to East Asia, with a string of conceivably winnable games against rival mid-table teams early on in the season. However, they will undoubtedly be relying heavily on Wu Lei maintaining last year’s excellent form and former squad players stepping up to fill those positions vacated by the exodus of home-grown first-teamers.