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Cheng: Despite historic start, Guoan stuck in limbo

A third of the way through the season, Beijing Guoan have only dropped six points in their opening 10 matches and sit in second place, three behind Guangzhou Evergrande. While this is their best start ever, that three points looks like a much deeper gulf to make up than it appears on paper. Let’s take a look at some of the good and bad so far.

The Good
Away from home – During the Pacheco era, Guoan only managed eight road wins in two season. Stanojevic was a slight improvement with five wins last year, but under Gregorio Manzano, the club already has four away wins this season and with a road match against Shanghai Shenxin going into the World Cup break, there’s a good chance for a fifth. That all of these wins have been by a single goal differential leads into the next point.

The defense – Guoan’s back four has been crucial to its success. Regularly one of the league’s best, this year they are also the stingiest, having given up only five goals (three of those were against Shandong). There’s something that comes with consistency, the back four having remained largely unchanged since 2009, this year Manzano seems to prefer Yu Yang to Lang Zheng in the middle and while Zhang Xinxin was out injured, new signing Zhao Hejing has served as an impressive replacement.

Smart signings – Since the summer window last year, with few exceptions Guoan has made great move after great move. Starting with the arrival of Zhang Chengdong, a major threat down the wing this season, Beijing has made a number of great moves. Zhang’s injury gave Chen Zhizhao a chance and he managed two goals in two starts. Just named to the World Cup roster, Ha Dae-sung has paired well with Darko Matic, a shutdown midfielder whose passing and skill also allow him to contribute in the attack. As mentioned above, Zhao Hejing has been a worthy replacement in defense. Unfortunately, Li Yunqiu has been out injured, but he is back in practice and should feature in the latter half of the season. If the biggest question mark is Pablo Batalla, who has already contributed four goals, you’re doing something right.

The Bad
Lack of offense – As good as Guoan’s defense has been, the offense has been seriously lacking, just doing enough to get by, outscoring their opponents by only one goal (6 of 10 times in the league), and causing their fans to suffer through plenty of heart stopping moments. The team’s record of 11 goals in 10 games means the Beijingers have the lowest goal total in the top half of the table, with a lot of those goals coming from the midfield, especially as of late.

Age ain’t just a number – Thank God for Yu Yang, at 24 he brings the age of the back four down to 30. His typical fellow starters, Zhang Xinxin (30), Zhou Ting (35), and Xu Yunlong (35) have all seen finer days. Zhang has been injured a few times over the last few seasons, and this year the ageless wonders Zhou and Xu have definitely shown signs of age, especially Zhou. Let’s not mention the fact that Beijing’s star netminder, who has played every match this year and has averaged 26 matches a season since arriving in the capital in 2005, is 31. Or that, lacking a big target man after Freddie Kanoute’s departure, the 34 year old Shao Jiayi has been relied upon in the starting XI.

Will the real Guoan please stand up? – Sitting in second place, a historically successful start to the season, you’d think there would be few things to complain about, but the reality is quite different, Guoan have been thoroughly mediocre, especially in the attack (see above). Perhaps their best performance so far was a 2-0 victory at home against Guangzhou R&F but even in that match they never looked like a truly dominant team and have yet to entirely take charge of a match.

The Ugly
Poor Peter Utaka – The Nigerian striker excelled under Stanojevic in Dalian, scoring 20 goals in his first season there, but even after the manager bolted to Beijing, Utaka still managed seven goals for Aerbin, then in the summer when he rejoined Stano in the capital, he knocked in another seven for Guoan. However, since Stano was fired in the offseason, Utaka has looked morose. He also looks slower and even more out of shape than before and his performances have been disappointing, leaving Guoan stuck during Joffre Guerron’s multi-game suspension. It seems like Utaka will be on his way out when the window reopens, much to the delight of many on the Gongti terraces.

Brandon Chemers aka B. Cheng aka A Modern Lei Feng – is a name which may be familiar to many in the Chinese blogosphere. He currently serves as Editor-in-Chief for Wild East Football and is one of the lonely souls writing about Chinese football in English for the last 10 years. Chemers' credentials are second to none – his former blog focused not only on the fortunes of his beloved Beijing Guoan FC, but a multitude of other aspects of Beijing life. He’s deservedly built a reputation in the Chinese blogosphere as an insightful observer of not only Chinese football, but also the wider picture of life in modern China and its many layers. For WEF, beyond writing about Guoan, he often focuses on fan culture and the business of Chinese football.

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