Thanks to a much improved defensive and away record compared to the previous two seasons Guangzhou R&F are third in the Chinese Super League. There are several clubs chasing that spot but if new signing Abderazzak Hamdallah continues to fire in the goals then the Yuexiushan side have a real chance of qualifying for the ACL for the first time.
The story so far
The eight new faces signed over the winter took time to settle in and after two draws to open the season, the blue and whites really hit their stride as they recorded big wins over Hangzhou and Henan. Hamdallah quickly showed that he was a more than adequate replacement for Yakubu whilst a more solid backline indicates a switch in the traditional R&F philosophy of focussing on attack at the expense of defence. The fixtures in May were a tougher test for this defence and after a win in the Canton derby consecutive losses to Guizhou and Shandong followed but a win over Harbin keeps R&F in third over the mid-season break.
Whilst beating Chanchun away doesn’t sound like it should be a key match, doing so after being 2-0 down at half time makes it one as the blue and whites have struggled to win away from Yuexiushan in previous years and this was also the first time R&F have come from two goals down to win in the CSL.
Another R&F trend from previous seasons is not performing well against established CSL heavyweights and in April the Cantonese were again dominated by Guoan at Gongti. The R&F 2014 vintage showed they could mix it with the big boys though when they deservedly won the Canton derby at Tianhe. The blue and whites have won there before but this time did so thanks to a very accomplished performance, rather than Yakubu’s shoulder. To qualify for the ACL, the Cantonese will need to repeat this performance in future big games.
Having scored nine goals and created others from central midfield, Davi is in his best form since the early days under Sergio Farias. Still prone to the odd rash tackle or fit of petulance, he now looks more comfortable playing a bit deeper as it allows him to make late runs into the box and he also links well with the three attacking midfielders and Hamdallah. The Moroccan himself has been another standout performer with ten goals already, including the CSL’s second ever fastest hat-trick, but has shown worrying signs of profligacy.
Looking to the future, young Cantonese winger Chang Feiya is beginning to show that he has more than just searing pace and is justifying Sven’s decision to promote him from the reserves.
All the talk of R&F’s firepower in attack and a stronger defence risks missing out the valuable contributions of new defensive midfielder Park Jong-Woo who has quickly become a key player. No goals so far but plenty of running and tackling to disrupt opponent’s attacks and protect his back four; it’s no surprise that the losses against Guizhou and Shandong came when he was on international duty.
Zhang Yuan has again struggled to show why he has played more CSL games for R&F than anyone else and deadline day signing Ken Islo didn’t show the star quality expected of foreign players. The Dane had been played in various positions but struggled to integrate himself into the team as despite his efforts, teammates seemed unwilling or unable to pick out his forward runs. It came as little surprise to see his one year contract terminated early to allow the club to try their luck in the transfer market again.
For R&F to make progress (read qualifying for the ACL) they must convert draws into wins by not conceeding late goals and taking their chances. The Cantonese were not outplayed in the losses to Guizhou and Shandong but weren’t clinical enough in front of goal so came away empty handed; perhaps a new foreign striker to share the workload with Hamdallah can help with this.
The fixture list is in the blue and white’s favour as after facing Jiangsu and current form team Tianjin TEDA when the season resumes, the blue and whites then have a run of games against teams in the bottom half of the table. This should allow R&F to pick up points and put pressure on other ACL contenders before playing those teams in the final rounds of the season so keeping destiny in their own hands rather than relying on results elsewhere.
To take advantage of this R&F will need to dispense with what has been their true wildcard in the first half of the season: team selection. Sven is yet to field what he believes is his strongest side and has only fielded an unchanged team once so far.
Much will depend on the new foreign signing as the blue and whites currently lack a quality alternative to Hamdallah in attack should the Moroccan be injured again or suspended. Should that and a potential domestic transfer be successful then R&F have a real chance of qualifying for the ACL if they can continue to make their leaky defence and terrible away record things of the past.