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Pub Talk: Super-tight Asian Champions League group climax beckons

A noisy and thrilling finale awaits a threesome of CSL clubs seeking a passage to enter Asia in the next round – Bcheng and Shanghai Ultra get to grips with the exciting affair which will be the final ACL matchday. Which of the multiple teams on the same number of points will have a happy ending to their group campaign after crossing swords? As the heat in the pub increases, your pubbing pair mop their brows and losen their ties, wondering if postponing games at home to improve performance travelling in Asia will help teams rise to the occasion. Back inside China, penetrating matters are discussed – specifically the rather bizarre case of Liu Jian – should stiff penalties be imposed upon Qingdao? The seaside team can only knock on wood to hope the issue does not end prematurely in a bum deal for them – although Evergrande remain in a dominant position, which sucks. But coming behind them on the table are Guoan and Shandong – can either snatch victory in the ACL or CSL in the coming week? Ultra moves his gaze to the damp and humid south – do Shenhua stand a chance down there or are they just in it for the craic? Harbin are also on the agenda – will they be pumped again and slide further down the greasy relegation pole? Meanwhile, Wagner Love makes a long-awaited appearance on the pub agenda – the mere mention of his name fitting and amusing in itself. And finally looming into pub view come Shanghai East Asia – are they real or fake? Your favourite pair of pundits get to grips with these pressing matters and various other tit-bits. Grab a, er, stool and join in the action!

S: Here we are in the pub, spring is in the air.

B: Yes it is and as always, we have a lot going on in the world of Chinese football…

S: We certainly do. Where shall we start?

B: Well, how about the ACL, as that’s freshest in everyone’s memory right now…

S: It is. Well I think it’s all very exciting, very tight indeed, certainly more competitive than the European champions league, which bores me to death most of the time.

B: Yes, we have a final match day where three groups are all wide open, it’s going to be interesting. Of course for me, Guoan’s disappointing result last night was hard to take, it looked for sure like the side was on its way to going through, to end up with only a point was tough.

S: I didn’t catch the game, how was it?

B: Guoan, fired up by the large crowd as always, was on the attack for most of the first half but couldn’t find the advantage, then in the second half they came out flying and got two, only to then go and concede two fairly quickly, both on low crosses.

S: Seems Guoan and all the Chinese teams (except Guizhou who are out) have been really inconsistent so far.

B: Hmm…I think inconsistent might be a little harsh when you look at their performance throughout the group stage. Guoan’s in a tough group and the only disappointing result was the loss at Central Coast. Last night after the 2-0 lead, I would have hoped for more, but I think complacency set in. That said, the second goal was an absolute thing of beauty, a one two between Joffre Guerron and Shao Jiayi, whose back heel was perfectly placed for Guerron. Of course, Guerron goals are always good for a laugh due to his “love with the corner flag” dance…

S: Do you think Guoan will make it? Seoul’s a tough place to go in the final round.

B: The debate I’ve been having with myself (and other Guoan fans) is do we want Guoan to make it or is it just better to go out and focus on the league at this point. I don’t think they have a serious chance of winning the league, but at this point if they were to win at Seoul they would have the chance to go through in 1st place and Pablo Batalla will be on the roster, a good draw could see them make a decent run, but they aren’t good enough to get too far into the competition.

S: Yeah I think this is a dilemma for a lot of teams – go for broke in the ACL or concentrate on the league. But if Guoan aren’t in witha real chance of winning the CSL, why not just for as far as you can in Asia?

B: Because (ever the optimist, though look where that got me last time), I think Guoan have a real chance of winning the CSL.

S: I don’t think there’s anyone outside of Beijing thinks that. And did you not just say you didn’t think Guoan has a serious chance of winning? I’m a bit confused.

B: They don’t have a serious chance of winning the ACL, but I think the league’s open. Well, on the subject, let’s look at their main league challenger, Guangzhou Evergrande, who suffered a disappointing loss in the ACL this week.

S: I think the league will be more open than last year I’d give you that, but I can’t see Evergrande not winning it again. Especially if they don’t make it out of the ACL group stage following that loss.

B: It is amazing that every team in that group is on 7 points right now, meaning the final day will see things wide open, but Evergrande is at home and so that should help. It’s hard getting motivated when you have been so utterly dominant, I was expecting it would be a problem for Evergrande last year, but it wasn’t, however it seems to be creeping in this year. I also think they are seriously missing Dario Conca, much more than anyone expected.

S: They are, and Diamanti hasn’t shown that he’s an adequate replacement from a team perspective yet.

B: Exactly, and its not only offensively, indeed, more than anything their defense is an issue this year. They are far and away number one in goals with 19, but they are 10th in conceding goals, already giving up 8. That’s in the league of course, but in the ACL it’s the same, having scored 8 goals, but giving up 7.

S: I want to say that, Evergrande can’t go on winning forever. But there’s tons of examples in European leagues were teams won titles 8,9,10 times in a row, Lyon, Rosenborg, Rangers… so if it can happen there, it can happen in China. Of course I hope that doesn’t happen.

B: I still wouldn’t bet against Evergrande, but we’re starting to see cracks and I think if Guoan keep up the way they have, they definitely have a shot. At no time this year has Guoan looked that dominant, but their defense (save for last night) has been solid and I think they still haven’t completely hit stride yet. Of course, this weekend will go a long way at telling us where they are as Shandong comes to town, smarting after a loss at Buriram.

S: Cuca is under pressure, Shandong have really flattered to deceive so far. I think with their investment they will be expecting to make it out of the group stage. But that is far from certain.

B: Definitely, like Guangzhou they are lucky to be at home for the final round, so that will help a little.

S: That luck is balanced somewhat by the fact they need to rely on another team doing them a favour and make sure Buriram pick up less points than Shandong in the final round. Exciting for the neutral!

B: Yes definitely, as we said at the top, it makes for one hell of a final day. And on the subject of that final day, I’m proud that Guoan, who also have a make or break clash, have rejected Shandong’s request to delay their weekend league match.

S: Yeah Evergrande’s group, as you said, all teams on 7 points, most eyes will be on that one. Elsewhere only Guizhou are out of the running in the east Asian half…. it’s super exciting. Whats with Shandong’s delay request?

B: Well, with both clubs playing crucial ACL matches next week, Shandong was hoping to postpone the game until later in the season. For Guoan it would make sense considering how difficult their schedule has been, away at Guizhou, home against Sanfrecce, the J-League champions, then Shandong and of course away at Seoul, but they want to go ahead with Saturday’s match. I’m sure this will see fans across the country angry at Guoan as usual, saying they aren’t “helping the motherland” but I think it’s the right move.

S: Actually I’m with Guoan on this one, I always think CSL teams are very picky with which games they ask to postpone. Would Shandong be asking Harbin to shift a match in the same circumstances? I really can’t see it. The schedule is known to all before the season starts (albeit just a few weeks before), teams really have to just get on with it, that’s what deep squads are for.

B: Exactly! I was expecting you would come down in favor of Guoan here and I completely agree. I don’t like when the schedule is treated as simply a suggestion.

S: I think its fair enough to move games by a day or so to allow teams to recover. Besides Shandong and Guoan are both in the ACL teams, so what exactly is the point in moving it? Both teams are on the same playing field here.
I mean, move games but not postpone them for weeks or months.

B: Though I do think we’re in the minority as many feel this competition is about national pride and Guoan isn’t being “friendly” enough to give both sides the best chance of advancing. But I think that says a lot about Guoan, because they have something to play for as well next week.

S: Wait, I get it, I just belatedly realized (doh) they want to postpone the game so that they can focus on the ACL, not because they want to rest to play an important CSL game at a better time. Well nice though it is to see the ACL being taken so seriously, I’m sure they can manage just fine. In these situations, it can be the fans who miss out, when big games are moved to inconvenient kick-off times.

B: I completely agree with you.

S: So how about last week’s CSL. Anything stuck out for you?

B: Well, not to belabor the fact, but I would start off with Guoan’s big win on the road in Guizhou, that’s one of the league’s toughest away trips and to come away with three points is not easy.

S: It was a good win, getting back on the rails after yet another disappointment in Shanghai the previous round. Speaking of which, its can of worms time, Song Boxuan scored a great goal for Guoan, his first I believe, then kissed the jersey… isn’t that a bit fake?

B: It excited a lot of Guoan fans, that’s for sure, but yeah, I think it’s a bit premature at the very least. I’m sure it riled a lot of Shenhua fans, which may have been the point.

S: Who knows, I can only quote one of the Shenhua fans from a comment a saw online “A Tianjin-born former Shenhua player kissing the Guoan badge – shameless.” I think that sums it up pretty well.

B: Haha, well, on the subject of Shenhua, if you’re talking about the other result that sort of surprised me, it was their big win over Aerbin.

S: Yeah even I was surprised, which I shouldn’t. Maybe its more accurate to say I surprised by the ease of the victory.

B: It was a good win, and especially in light of recent results, I’m sure it was one that was much appreciated.

S: It was pleasant. I am not a massively enthusiastic fan of Batista’s return, but clearly he’s made a positive difference, and one which was needed. I think what is interesting, as mentioned in my report, is Aerbin’s poor showing this season so far. They have the players to be doing much better. And certainly better than only getting one shot on target against a defence as rickety as Shenhua’s.

B: Right, well, they’re currently stuck in a relegation position, alongside Tianjin who somehow managed to score two goals on Evergrande. If there was any other real surprise from the weekend, that would have probably been it. Granted, Evergrande eventually put up 5, but for awhile it looked like the champions would drop points again.

S: It was another thought-provoking performance from Evergrande. As for Tianjin, they are a very odd team who come up with awesome results from time to time but lose carelessly in games where they shouldn’t.

B: Outside of that, not too much to talk about, Harbin suffered yet another loss; Shandong cruised past Hangzhou; East Asia kept things going facing Changchun; and R&F pounded Henan. Granted, we’re only six games into the season, but just taking a quick look at the table, you’re already seeing separating, there are six sides at the top, the other 9 sides, and then Harbin.

S: Yeah it wasn’t a boring round by any means, but nothing too extraordinary happened. There is a pattern emerging I think. Poor old Harbin, they must surely be looking forward to finally making their home debut.

B: Yeah, well, I’m sure that will feature heavily next week. Unfortunately for them, their first home match is against Guoan, not the best way to ease into things. This week Harbin’s away at Hangzhou, this is another good chance of at least securing a point.

S: Yeah, a decent chance there. I remember we discussed before, the rationale for making Harbin play on the road and you pointed out Changchun’s climate is not significantly different. Sure enough, I checked out the weather forecast the other weekend, and the temperature was the same in each city, highs of 10 lows of 3. So it seems a bit odd really.

B: Right, I can maybe understand forcing them on the road in March, but by mid April, its already warmed up considerably. Then again, maybe its due to sensitivity, hell I think some of the Shanghai Shenhua (or was it Shenxin?) coaches were wearing winter puffer coats last weekend in Shanghai.

S: It can be pretty chilly standing around here even in spring as its so damp and moist. But I’m glad spring is on its way, unfortunately it lasts barely a month or so around this part of China. I’m a big fan of summer football.

B: There’s a joke going around that during Beijing’s spring, you can experience all four seasons in a single day, so it’s all over the place. So back to the weekend, the Beijing-Shandong match is by far the one to watch, no?

S: It is the one to watch, and rightly so. As I said earlier, pressure is on Cuca, this is a big test for both sides and I’m looking forward to discovering the outcome. I was speaking to a Brazilian journalist earlier this week, he told me some interesting things. Apparently Cuca is generally disappointed with the domestic player’s determination levels, plus some of the Brazilian players find life in Jinan to be rather dull. None of that will surprise you much I imagine, nor will the fact that the journalist said Wagner Love is the life and soul of every party held by the Jinan Brazilian community.

B: Right, neither are very surprising at all, I guess his wife isn’t in Jinan, after all, didn’t he say he dealt with Russia’s winters by spending a lot of time in bed with his wife?

S: He said something funny like, how did Russians find the feeling to make love since it was so cold there. Maybe he didn’t drink enough vodka. Plus Wager doesn’t seem like the kind of guy to abstain from having a good time come what may.

B: Definitely not…Shandong have struggled at Gongti and I think the home fans are going to be up for it, this is always one of the harder tickets each year, plus it wouldn’t surprise me if Shandong doesn’t field its strongest side, focusing instead on the ACL. I’m expecting a very defensive affair as both sides are tied for top defense, having only given up two goals in the opening six matches.

S: That takes me back to our earlier discussion and another point i wanted to make but didn’t want to labour on it – dropping players for any reason devalues a competition. It’s understandable if a team is no longer in contention as a winner, but so early in the season, it’s ridiculous. It’s not healthy to devalue the CSL this way, it disrespects the competition. So I hope Shandong and Guoan can play a great game, they certainly have the ability to do so.

B: It should be a hell of a match, that’s for sure. Any other match catch your fancy this weekend?

S: I’d be remiss not to mention Shenhua’s visit to Evergrande, if only for reasons of personal interest. I don’t expect Shenhua to do much but it will be a good test to see if Batista can make a difference. For Evergrande, they’ll want to get back on the rails – I wonder what their line-up will be? Lippi may feel its a game where he can afford to rest players, which may make things interesting.

B: Haha, indeed. I figured we’d be talking about Evergrande (and Shenhua) again. If this was being played in Shanghai, I’d be a little more interested in it, but away at Evergrande, I don’t foresee things going well for your lot. While Lippi may rest some players, even resting a few key players, Evergrande is still a dominant side. Though I don’t think Liu Jian is quite the savior they may think he is.

S: You’re correct, it would take a reckless gambler to bet against a home win in that fixture. Xu Liang is in the media saying their mission is to get a point, that would be a great result if it came to pass. This Liu Jian thing preplexes me, doesn’t seem to be the kind of top-line Chinese player Evergrande have gone for in the past.

B: I would think that there’d be a way to appease Qingdao with money, I’m shocked this has gone on for so long.

S: I really don’t know what’s at the bottom of it. But I’m afraid it reeks of dodginess from head to toe.

B: It’s an odd situation all around…Going back to what Xu said, I can’t see it happening, but this is one of the few times each year where I’ll be cheering right alongside you for Shenhua.

S: Well, gotta enjoy that rare sight. I just fear Evergrande have had their silly result at home for the year already against Changchun a few weeks ago, so the chances of such a thing happening again are so much less. I think the other game of note is East Asia’s visit to Dalian – can they stay in the leading pack?

B: I think that’s an interesting match to look at, if only because I think both of us have wondered what the hell is going on in Dalian and when will they finally right that ship. For the past two years we’ve mentally placed Aerbin as one of the league’s better sides, I think everyone in the league does that, and yet they’ve never played to that level. That said, outside of Guoan, this will be one of East Asia’s biggest tests so far and if they can go on the road and come away with all three points, count me impressed.

S: Yeah agree on all counts. Aerbin are a mystery, I mean, finishing in or near the ACL spots should be within their capability. As for East Asia, I am not sure anyone expects them to be near the top of the table at the end of the season. But a win over Aerbin isn’t beyond them, and if they can stay up near the top bracket, well who knows where it might end.

B: Then again, there was a lot of high praise for Qingdao through the opening 10 or so matches last season…..

S: That is a pertinent observation… and look where they are now. Certainly not near the top of the CSL anymore.

B: Anything else on your mind my friend?

S: I think that is about it for another week, unless there’s something we’ve forgotten?

B: Nope, cheers mate! Here’s to Saturday football matches (something we’re almost never treated to here in the capital) and Joffre Guerron grinding on a corner flag.

S: And on that note, it’s time to drink up. Cheers!

B: Cheers!

A leading international commentator on Chinese football frequently quoted by the world's top media. Offers piercing and resolutely honest insights into the bustling crossroads where football, society, economics and politics meet in contemporary China. Based in Shanghai since 2005, observer of the Chinese game since 2000.



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