Harbin Yiteng will play its first ever top flight home match this weekend, facing off against Beijing Guoan. Unfortunately, fans in the Ice City have had to wait far too long for this match, their club starting off the season playing 7 away matches, losing them all.
Yiteng’s long away trip was due to temperatures in Harbin, where the average high in March hovers around zero and snow isn’t unheard of. The trip saw Harbin, the northernmost club in the CSL’s history, crisscross the country, dropping points everywhere they go. The side has only managed a pathetic three goals in seven matches (though one of them came against league leaders Guangzhou Evergrande).
However, it seems patently unfair to make Harbin go on such an away trip, having to deal with the elements is just part of football. Conditions may not be ideal that far north in March, but Harbin’s average high of 2.5 and low of -9.5 doesn’t differ heavily from Changchun’s high of 3.7 and low of -7, yet Yatai has never been forced on such an away trip, regularly playing at home throughout March. Do these minor temperature differences really make that much difference? What about weather in Guangzhou, where it can reach the high 30s in the summer and the monsoon season means a few matches each year are played on a pitch that is almost under water?
Despite the road trip and the paucity of goals, Harbin hasn’t looked as bad as their record shows. Indeed, points seem to be stolen from them time and time again. They came closest on the opening day of the season, perhaps hyped up by their first CSL match, Harbin fought valiently against last year’s runners up Shandong Luneng. Even when Yiteng went down to 10 men, but they gave up a soul-crushing 89th minute goal saving Luneng from embarrassment and starting Harbin down a path of sorrows. At Jiangsu, it was a goal on the hour mark that killed Harbin’s hopes of earning a first point. When the Ice City side traveled to Shanghai to face off against Shenxin, they were undone by a first half goal and couldn’t find a response, despite outshooting the home side and having plenty of chances. This past weekend at Hangzhou, Harbin jumped out to only their second lead of the season, but two second half goals, the second coming six minutes from time, ended their hopes of a first CSL point before they return home.
It’s hard to be optimistic about a team that loses their opening seven matches, but Harbin have rarely looked outplayed along the way and have performed impressively against a number of the league’s better sides. Having watched them against Shandong, Shenxin, and Hangzhou, it must be said that Harbin deserved points from all of these matches, but that’s just how football is, you don’t always catch breaks. Part of Harbin’s struggles have to be chalked up to their inexperience in the top flight, but the grueling road trip has only made things that much harder.
Harbin have a deep hole to dig themselves out of, but fortunately for the dongbei side, there’s a whole lot of average in this year’s CSL. They are within six points of four other sides, two of those sides (Henan and Changchun), are their next opponents after Guoan. Things aren’t going to be easy for Harbin, nothing has been in 2014, but the hole isn’t insurmountable and if the home fans get behind the side (as they are likely to do), the denizens of the Ice City may hang around for another season.