Guangzhou Evergrande kick off the new domestic season with the first of three consecutive home games against relatively weak opposition. To begin, they welcome Henan Jianye back to top flight life after their brief sojourn down in China League One.
The defending champions enter the competition with much the same squad as the one that stormed Asia in 2013, fears of an exodus of the brightest stars having proven entirely unfounded. Out of contract Dario Conca has been the only major departure, and replacement Alessandro Diamanti is showing every sign of being able to replicate his sparkling Serie A form. Goalkeeper Zeng Cheng is on the injury list after being hurt in training with the national team during the week, while Muriqui may also be sidelined due to an ongoing calf problem.
Last Time Out
This is Evergrande’s first fixture of the 2014 Super League, but they produced an impressive second half comeback last week in their ACL opener against Melbourne Victory. Putting behind them a surprisingly poor opening 45 minutes in which they went two goals down (the first time in a year that fans at Tianhe had seen such a thing), they stormed the barricades in a very offensive 3-4-3 to run riot after the break.
Causes for Optimism…
The above mentioned comeback. Just prior to half-time the team looked lost and the crowd were starting to fret. The rip-roaring, swashbuckling performance they responded with reminded everyone of the all those matches early last season when a sparkling second half obliterated the memory of a dreary first. This one was probably more exciting than any so far and bodes very well for entertainment value at home this year – though less so for those of us behind the south goal.
… and for Concern
Evergrande beat Henan all four times that they met in 2012. The Zhengzhou side went down that year but domineered the second tier on their way straight back up, and with the recent acquisition of Ryan Johnson, one of the top scorers last year for MLS Western Conference Champions Portland Timbers, they should be a stronger proposition this season. Li Shuai performed very well in Zeng’s absence at the Club World Cup but is more error prone, and some players may be rested due to involvement in China’s dire loss to Iraq on Wednesday evening. If Henan’s frontline can take advantage of the probable early rustiness, the home side might have a fight on their hands.
Watch Out For
New signing Diamanti started in Conca’s attacking midfield berth against Melbourne and also in a friendly against Qingdao Hianiu a week earlier, but in both replaced Muriqui up front as the side was shaken up. Given the effervescence of these second half displays, it will interesting to see whether Lippi starts with his customary 4-3-3/4-5-1 here and, if he does, how long it will last.
Early season is the worst time to make predictions, but Evergrande should be too good for the returnees. I’m going for a conservative 3-1 win.
Guangzhou Evergrande vs Henan Jianye kicks off at the early time of 4:30pm, this Saturday 8th March. There will be a youth game and a season opening ceremony beforehand too, so arrive by 2ish if you want to catch those.
Update 17:00 7th March: Defender Feng Xiaoting and midfielder Zhao Xuri are also apparently out of contention. Feng had a particularly poor game against Iraq on Wednesday. In Muriqui and Zhao’s absence, Renê Júnior will likely make his competitive Evergrande debut.