Guangzhou Evergrande fell to a 1-0 defeat to Cerezo Osaka at the Tianhe Stadium on Tuesday night in a game that ultimately mattered little to the result of the tie. Evergrande now progress to the quarterfinal stage of the Champions League for the third year running, but do so with a whimper. Having now played 19 games since they opened the season proper against Melbourne Victory on February 26, it is clear that the schedule is taking its toll on the side’s performance. They will not have wanted to concede their unbeaten home record against Japanese sides as easily as they did on this occasion, but could not summon the energy to change the tide of the game. In reality, though, it was irrelevant fixture.
One person who will remember the clash longer than most is 21-year-old midfielder Liao Lisheng who, having played just once before this season, has featured for his side on 15 occasions already this term. Upon his debut, coach Marcello Lippi noted that there was little difference between the performance of his new youngster and the likes of Huang Bowen, Zhao Xuri and Zheng Zhi around him. They were generous words given that he was largely passive on the night, but Lippi has continued to show faith in his newest first-teamer. His performances have generally improved week upon week and for the two crucial fixtures against Cerezo, he was chosen to start ahead of the experienced Huang Bowen on both occasions.
Liao, though, left the Tianhe field dejected on Tuesday. It was his own goal that had ultimately handed Evergrande defeat and, thus, for the first time he was feeling the sadness that making a crucial error brings. He needn’t worry too much, however. It is easy to criticise his mistake but it should not be forgotten that it was only due to his desperation to help his side’s defensive cause that the goal was conceded. Whatever anyone may think of his ability, that energy has been important to Evergrande in recent games.
In his first outings for the first-team, it was clear that Liao was nervous. A few weeks into the season, a teammate told me that they were encouraging him to be more expressive in his play and believe in his own ability. It is working. Even on a night that will ultimately leave him feeling dejected, no Evergrande player was on the ball more than Liao. Indeed, as a comparison, he made 82 passes of the ball compared to Zhao Xuri’s 47 and a substantially higher percentage of those were a forward direction. To continue the comparison, he also won back possession more times than his teammate despite Zhao being renowned for his tackling. It cannot be said that the 21-year-old was hiding.
He will have better nights and, indeed, has played better this season, but his willingness to take responsibility is an encouraging sign. It is exactly that reason that has seen him become such a constant in the side this season. He will make mistakes as he learns to express himself, but that should not discourage him. It is now important that his senior colleagues support him in the coming days and ensure that when he next takes to the field, his recent confidence remains. Evergrande were poor on the day, with Lippi blaming mentality issues for the defeat. It was an issue throughout the team and the result should not be blamed on the goal itself. Indeed, Cerezo coach Ranko Popovic even commented that he did not feel the hosts tried to win the game. In all senses, it was a night to forget.
Zheng Zhi once more struggled on Tuesday, with his fitness a growing concern. With the crucial top of the table clash against Beijing just under two weeks away, there will be increasing worries about his availability for that game. While Liao will probably not be exposed to the fierce atmosphere of the Gongti, Zheng Zhi’s recent injury concerns emphasise the importance of a replacement being found before he eventually retires. It is in that context, as well as the need for the club to bring through local Cantonese talent, that his development over the next year or two becomes important.
In Lippi he has the ideal mentor and, indeed, the initial work the Italian and his staff have done with Liao has paid off with the news that he is already in China manager Alain Perrin’s plans for the national team. Given the scarcity of outstanding Chinese midfielders in the Super League, it is attention he richly deserves. At the moment he is a good player for that level, but Evergrande demand more than just good Super League players. Liao must prove that he can kick on from this start and reach the level of those around him over an extended period. He has shown that he has the natural ability, while his temperament and attitude have been praised by those who know him, but player development is far from an exact science.
Lippi will continue to reinforce his belief in self-expression and Liao must listen to his teachings. To reach higher levels he has to continue to take more risks, to test the limits of his abilities and to trust his instincts on the football pitch. Doing so, however, will also risk mistakes. It was Liao’s instincts that sensed danger ahead of him inadvertently scoring an own goal. However, that is always a better scenario than a player failing to respond to the threat. In a way, there is a positive to take from the error.
Football is a learning process throughout a player’s career and it is my firm belief that even the likes of Gao Lin and Zheng Zhi, already experienced professionals, have benefitted individually from Lippi’s instruction. For the younger players, such wisdom is invaluable and, of late, Liu Haidong has become the latest player to begin integrating into the first-team. Liao, though, is the example to follow at the moment and Tuesday’s setback should not affect that standing. The defensive midfield position is one that relies greatly on intelligent reading of the game and those skills will only improve with experience.
Fans must remain patient when errors occur, as they will do, because the progression of a new generation of talent in Guangzhou and across China is essential. The indications are that Perrin will call time on the international careers of those born before 1984, leaving the likes of Zheng Zhi, Yang Zhi and Sun Xiang out in the cold. Liao is a long way from reaching those levels, but must be encouraged to continue what he is doing. His progress thus far is clear and his unfortunate error on this occasion should not hide the positives of recent weeks.
*Article first appeared in Chinese on sports.ifeng.com
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