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Life after Conca a bumpy road but Evergrande still on top: Mid-Season Review

The double-winning Cantonese side’s 2013 was always going to be a hard act to follow, and the departure of pivotal midfield maestro Dario Conca in the winter hasn’t made it any easier. Performances have been wildly variable over a hectic schedule that saw them play two games most weeks, but despite a number of injuries they have made it to the break a point clear at the top of the domestic table and in the quarter-finals of the Champion’s League. What are their chances of a remarkable repeat of last season’s triumphs?

The story so far

Last year Evergrande lost only one game apiece in the CSL and ACL en route to their titles; this season they have been defeated five times already with half a season yet to play. And while their goalscoring record hasn’t been far off 2013’s, their defence has conceded almost twice as many as last spring, with 23 goals (compared to twelve then) shipped in 22 games.

The loss of Conca has probably been the main factor behind this downturn in form.  Guangzhou’s system had basically been built around him for the past couple of seasons, and it quickly became clear that whatever his merits, replacement Alessandro Diamanti was not going to fill those steady metronomic boots, and no one else in the squad was going to fit into them either.  A touch of complacency early on only exacerbated the disorder caused by the loss of their key player.

Liao Lisheng celebrates with Gao Lin after scoring against Jeonbuk

Liao Lisheng celebrates with Gao Lin after scoring in the ACL against Jeonbuk Motors

This along with the accumulation of injuries in defensive areas (Feng Xiaoting, Zheng Zhi, and Zhao Xuri all spent substantial time out) and the lengthy unavailability of new signing Liu Jian (thanks to contract-forging hijinks at former club Qingdao Jonoon) forced manager Marcello Lippi into a lot more experimental chopping and changing than last season.  One positive from all this instability though has been the emergence of a genuine local starlet in the shape of defensive/central midfielder Liao Lisheng.

Having previously made just one appearance for the club, the twenty year old was thrust into the spotlight in the ACL season opener against Melbourne Victory, replacing the unfit Muriqui at the break. His surprise appearance coincided with a dramatically improved second half for the home team, who fought back from two goals down to win 4-2. The Tianhe faithful have taken Liao to their hearts as he has gone on to make seventeen more appearances since, some more successful than others.

Key match

The majority of Guangzhou’s most impressive displays this year have come in continental competition. The progress-securing ACL group stage win over Yokohama F-Marinos was far more one-sided than the 2-1 scoreline suggests, while the dazzling 5-1 away win over Cerezo Osaka in the next round saw their most devastating performance of the season so far. It was followed by the club’s first consecutive home defeats of the Evergrande era, but the first was a swampy Guangzhou derby played a mere three days after their exhilarating exertions in Osaka and the second the rubber stamp return game against Cerezo.

Evergrande players after their 1-3 home loss to Changchun

Evergrande players in shock after their 1-3 home loss to Changchun Yatai

In the CSL, the early home defeat to Changchun Yatai was the most significant fixture in some ways, reminding players who had perhaps started to believe in their own aura of invincibility that sometimes just showing up wasn’t enough even against teams from the lower reaches of the table. From where we’re sitting now though, holding out for a hard-earned point at the Workers Stadium in the final game before the break  is the result that stands out most, as it ensured pole position would be maintained over the summer.

Stars

Up front is where Evergrande have (mostly) continued to shine. Elkeson tops the CSL goalscorer charts again, his twelve goals in as many games putting him one ahead of Shanghai East Asia’s Tobias Hysen, with neighbouring R&F’s Abderrazak Hamdallah and Davi close behind. Gao Lin is also having a stormer of a season with more assists (seven) than any of his teammates, proving the doubters amongst us wrong about his desire and ability to further develop.

Dong Xuesheng celebrates his winner against Shenxin

Dong Xuesheng scored the only goal in the away win against a resilient Shanghai Shenxin

Even more surprising was the transformation of Dong Xuesheng from Dalian Aerbin bench-warmer to top-scoring Chinese striker in the CSL. Despite having only managed a solitary goal in each of his two seasons in Liaoning, Dong opened his Cantonese account in his debut against Henan and went on to bag four more before an unfortunate injury ruled him out until the restart.

Similarly no one was expecting anything too special from the “fifth foreigner”, big defensive midfielder Rene Junior, but the Brazilian was the club’s top scorer until an absurd four-match suspension for waving a finger in the direction of Jiangsu Sainty’s bothersome Liu Jianye robbed him of momentum. Neither player was included in the early season ACL squad, but it’s difficult to see what more they could have done to earn a place in the coming knock-out stages selection.

Flops

When ranking the players at the end of last season, our group of Evergrande fans were in general agreement that Rong Hao and Huang Bowen were the most improved over the course of the season and the players we were most optimistic about for the one coming. Both have made plenty of appearances so far, Huang in fact having more than anyone else in the squad (21), but these have come increasingly from the bench as the weeks have passed.

Rong is beginning to resemble a younger version of Feng Junyan, wandering around the pitch like a vagabond, never finding a spot he can call his own.  Huang initially kept up his momentum from last season, but he soon started to revert to his old anonymous self, and he was tellingly excluded from the most recent Chinese national team squad.  Hopefully the summer’s rest will see them return with restored vigour, but Rong especially may find opportunities increasingly limited.

Must improve

Diamanti scored twice on his debut against Melbourne Victory, but the goals dried up soon after

Diamanti scored twice on his debut against Melbourne Victory, but the goals dried up soon after

Diamanti has rather underwhelmed so far – after an initial burst he hasn’t found the net since the second league game against Harbin Yiteng. In fairness he got injured early on, didn’t seem fully fit after his return, and may have been asked politely by Lippi to cut down on the often wayward blasts from distance, but he never really looked like a player an Italian national squad would bring to the World Cup.

However he undoubtedly possesses the ability to make a difference when things are tight, his interactions with his teammates did improve as he became accustomed to his surroundings, and he has spoken to the press about how much he’s enjoying living in China, so hopefully he will be more influential in the latter half of the season.

Wildcard

Evergrande have rarely been out of the news since the CSL summer break started two weeks ago. First there was the shock decision by Jack Ma of internet giant Alibaba, who had been publicly flirting with hometown club Hangzhou Greentown in the preceding weeks, to buy 50% of Guangzhou Evergrande in the name of his company, a development which could signal even greater spending on playing staff.

Yu Hanchao celebrates scoring his second for Dalian against Evergrande in April

Yu Hanchao celebrates his stunning solo second for Dalian Aerbin at Tianhe Stadium in April

Then just a couple of days ago it was announced that cash-strapped Dalian Aerbin had sold talismanic midfielder Yu Hanchao and bog-standard left back Li Xuepeng to the champions for 48 million RMB. The former’s star turn (including an excellent brace) when Dalian visited Tianhe looks in retrospect like a very successful audition, though reports since have claimed that the club sold the players without consulting them on the details. I’m sure they’re heartbroken.

Yu is a massive signing who will certainly shake up the Evergrande midfield, though the move could also indicate that Zheng Long’s rehabilitation from the injury sustained last October (that was supposed to only keep him out for less than two months) is not going so well. Changes in the foreign contingent may also be on the way, with Napoli, Inter Milan, and Bestikas all said to be inquiring after Elkeson and Kim Young-Gwon in the World Cup shop window, though Lippi has repeatedly insisted that if the South Korean goes then he does too.

With the increased financial firepower – as if it were at all necessary – provided by Alibaba, there is no reason to think any replacements will be greatly inferior.  Rather the greatest wildcard is to be found in the spending of the teams around them this summer and in particular the extent to which nearest challengers Beijing Guoan are willing to invest in their own rather threadbare playing squad.

Outlook

It’s difficult to see Evergrande dropping enough points to fail to retain the league title. Guoan have been fortunate to amass the points total that they have, and are unlikely to bring in enough quality to turn their luck into dominance. Things have gone badly enough wrong at Shandong Luneng that they may find an ACL place hard to cling to, while R&F lack consistency despite real potency up front. The ACL display against Cerezo showed that Guangzhou can still be unplayable on their day, so while anything is possible in knockout competition, it would be foolhardy to bet against a second consecutive double for the new powerhouse of the East.

Irish Guangzhou Evergrande fan, following them since I fortuitously found myself living next to Tianhe Stadium in 2011, reporting on them for Wild East Football since 2012.

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