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Pub Talk: Shanghai, Beijing and the Hongkou hoodoo

After a long World Cup-inspired hiatus, Bcheng and Shanghai Ultra return to the pub – just in time for the China derby. The pair discuss Guoan’s long run of having never won at Hongkou, and some banter flies, although B manages not to mention a certain unspeakable freak result that happened far back in the mists of time. Elsewhere, there’s a bit of role reversal as B and S swap positions on Evergrande’s prospects, and the CFA cup is given a good examination – who will lift that holy grail at the end of this season? The punishing summer schedule is also on the agenda – what can be done? Your pundits offer their thoughts. It’s a bumper pub session this week, so much has happened, so pull up a stool and join in the discussion in the comments section. Kaishi!

S: Welcome back to the pub B, it’s been such a long time!

B: Yeah, typically I can find may way here blindfolded (perhaps its more a matter of finding my way home after all the drinking in the pub), but this time I almost got lost, it’s been awhile…

S: Perhaps we need a ball of wool or something like that to get back. Did you enjoy the World Cup?

B: There are two levels here, it was a great party, there were some real memorable nights and moments, but the footie won’t live long in the memory for the most part.

S: I think it was the best World Cup in recent years on all levels, better than 2010 or 2006. There wasn’t a standout team for sure. Argentina are the weakest finalist I’ve seen, Brazil were pure rubbish.

B: Haha, you’re really ready to throw down the gloves, it truly is a derby week….We’ve talked about it a few times in real pubs, I would hardly call Brazil rubbish, but anyways, my focus was more on the plucky Americans.

S: I’m exaggerating I’ll give you that. But I’m just judging them by their own standards. They were lucky to get out of the group stage. Fred? Seriously I wouldn’t even want Shenhua to sign him. Something we will definitely agree on in the pub today is the USA. I loved watching them, exciting games and they play with great ethics – both team ethic and sportsmanship. I think getting out of that group is one of their best achievements so far.

B: Indeed, they were a very fit side and although they didn’t always play that well, they absolutely never gave up or stopped running. But we have a lot of Chinese football to be talking about, should we move on?

S: Yeah, it’s nice to branch out a bit but there’s been a lot of water under the CSL bridge since our last pints in here.

B: There’s been a number of weeks of CSL action, a number of matches last night, as well as two rounds of the cup, where shall we begin?

S: Let’s look at the big picture, if I can see it at all. Basically the break and what’s happened just before and just after it I think has rejuvinated the CSL. We’ve got Harbin coming out of nowhere at the bottom to cut the gap to safety to just 4 points. That’s an exciting narrative. At the top, Evergrande look historically weak, crashing out of the cup and they face a struggle with personel changes.

B: Well, we’ve been talking about the “struggle” for a long time now, I don’t think Muriqui leaving and the Italian takeover continuing is going to change things much, but that cup loss to Henan was a shocker. I’m with you on Harbin, they were doing alright going into the break and now that they’re at home, it’s been a new side, even last night, while they got hammered by Evergrande, they kept fighting back

S: Hey B! WAIT a minute. Did you see what happened there?

B: In the Harbin match?

S: No. I said something like, Evergrande aren’t looking that great maybe they can be beaten, you said, no, nothings gonna change. Every other time we have talked about them, it’s been the other way around. You’re in Devil’s Advocate mode today, lol?

B: Mate, they’re 18 matches into the season and have lost twice. Reality is setting in. I think this might be the weakest Evergrande side we’ve seen since Lippi has taken over, but like any great side, they keep finding ways to win and right now their lead is seven points (though Guoan has played one less match).

S: I’m disappointed in you man, I used to know I could come to you every time to hear how Evergrande were not so invincible and weren’t going to run away with the league and how Guoan could stop em.

B: I think the speed bump Guoan hit in the league really changed things for me. While I still don’t think Evergrande are invincible and I think (hope) Guoan will keep things very close, I can’t see anyone other than Evergrande winning it.

S: Yeah I’m just letting the banter fly today. Your response is very reasonable indeed… the best we can hope for is they don’t run away with it.

B: For that to happen, Guoan has to keep pace and as I said, they’ve really slipped up lately. Then again, up until last night, Evergrande only managed four goals in their last five matches, and only won one of those matches.

S: Do you think they took the cup game v Henan seriously?

B: Mentally they didn’t, but if you look at their starting XI, it wasn’t like they put out a bunch of subs.

S: That’s what I thought. Man, there’s just so much to talk about, they are out of the cup. That makes that contest more interesting.

B: I think the problem was the players got tired and may have let themselves think they’d cruise to a 1-0 victory, when Henan started pressing in the final 10 minutes or so of that match. Yes, both of last year’s finalists are out of the cup, the matches are really coming fast and furious with pretty much two every week now.

S: Yes the insane schedule after the World Cup is adding to our topic-overload today.

B: Yeah, again we have the CFA to thank for that. The initial rounds of the CFA Cup were relatively spaced out, then they decide to take care of three rounds in a month.

S: I can’t help but think surely there must be a better way to space out the fixtures. I know there’s the world cup this year, but that only added on a couple of weeks compared to the normal summer break. Shenhua played a rearranged game against Evergrande before the world cup was over, in the final week when there aren’t so many games. I think that would have been a good time for CFA cup matches as well.

B: I completely agree, everyone was back with their clubs, there was no reason not to play midweek before the CSL restarted.

S: Yeah. Just looking at Shenhua’s schedule – 9 games in one calendar month. That’s tough, especially in the heat of summer. Similar for everyone else I imagine.

B: Right, it’s the same for any of the sides who are this far in the CFA Cup. It’s crazy, especially after such a long break and in the middle of the summer.

S: I think the cup though is a welcome inclusion on the calendar. Some really unexpected results this year, some CSL clubs falling to lower league sides.

B: Completely agree, cup competitions are always fun and with the addition that all the matches are played at the lower ranked side, it makes it more fun. I’d still wish we had a draw each round, but its definitely been great so far.

S: I think the cup is making slow but steady steps towards being what a cup competition should be. Awarding an ACL place to the winner is something which is vital for it to take root in terms of being taken seriously. There is of course the problem that the ACL itself isn’t taken as completely seriously as it might, but China is doing it’s best to change that with big attendances for such games.

B: Right, I don’t think there’s any concern of it not being taken seriously here. Especially now that it looks like China only will have two automatic ACL spots next year, if you don’t win the league, you need to win the cup if you want to avoid qualifying.

S: I’ve heard other countries are also losing places, what gives? The ACL seems to be in constant flux when it comes to quotas.

B: Right, they’re looking to get more countries involved in the competition, I think it’s a good thing for the most part.

S: Definitely, it’s been a concern for years now that its the same teams meeting each year, or more to the point, the China – Japan – South Korea – Australia championship, that’s all ACL match-goers see of Asian football in this part of the world.

B: Anyways, do we want to talk more about last night or is it time to take a look at the weekend?

S: Yeah I think the view behind us is looking a little foggy, so much action has taken place. I think it’s time to get down to business and indulge ourselves.

B: Let’s get to it, it’s derby time this weekend, there’s a typhoon about to hit Shanghai (literally), and lots of green will be seen at Hongkou this weekend, what’s your take on this one?

S: You know what? This game is always so difficult to call. Because despite the fact the outcome tends to be very predictable, it’s been so predictable in recent seasons you can’t help but think a surprising result has to come sooner or later.

B: That’s very diplomatic of you! Considering how Shenhua was on a bit of a run since the break, I wasn’t that confident, but last night they looked like the earlier Shenhua. At the same time, last night with the arrival of Erton (not even going to try the last name), things seem to be looking up in the capital.

S: Shenhua always suck ass away from home no matter what. But of course, this game is at Hongkou …

B: I can’t honestly see Guoan winning, but I also don’t think the Hongkou (and now Shanghai) mojo will strike a third time, I’m guessing a draw.

S: After watching a pretty crappy game last night, where Shenhua were playing for a draw from the second half on, I wondered if they were perhaps keeping their powder dry for the big game v Beijing. I can see an anti-climatic 0-0 as I gaze into my crystal ball.

B: This is all very harmonious, are we going weak in our old age?

S: Hahahaha yes it is and a very good question. I wonder how it will be on the pitch? Xu Liang was injured last night, will the former Guoan man appear? And what about Song Boxuan. Has he got much of a look-in this season?

B: Song’s not featured so much recently, though last night he came on as a second half sub. I expect there’s a chance he’ll get some time in the match.

S: Yeah, by the way for those not in on the Shanghai-Beijing thing, both the players we mentioned just now used to play for the other club. So why do you think Guoan have never won at Hongkou? That’s a pretty shocking statistic, you’d think they would have managed it at least once.

B: I think it comes down to how crucial home field advantage was in the old days of the CSL, be it for legit reasons or not, and its just grown to be this massive weight on their shoulders, every year it seems like they just find a new way to fail against mediocre Shenhua sides.

S: That sounds about right. Shenhua have indeed been mediocre in recent years. The new signings of Henrique and Viatri have taken an edge off things, but this is still I think a historically weak Shenhua squad.

B: The past few years it seems like every year Shenhua is worse than they were the year before, that this is the best chance Guoan has to win at Hongkou, and they fail. What’s worse is that they don’t even come away with the point, that was especially painful in 2011 when Shenhua scored very late.

S: Yeah a goal from Jiang Kun. Who would imagine he would still be in the first team nearly three years later? On paper Guoan have the talent. Perhaps Dejan can propel Guoan this year? He knows you guys haven’t ever won there, because he favourited my tweet about it! If he scores and Guoan win I think I’ll have to review my tweeting habits.

B: Yes, I can’t help but get excited about him and Erton working out a partnership, they both look the deal.

S: Dejan’s made an impact already. Probably more than he made at Sainty, quite a curious turn of events, what were the transfer fees involved?

B: Not really sure to be honest. It was an odd piece of business but it seems like it was somewhat predetermined, anyways, he’s done great so far and I can’t stop talking about Erton, who was huge last night.

S: I’m not familiar with this newcomer, can you enlighten us all?

B: Erton Fejzullahu’s in his mid 20s, a Swedish international who has spent his time with a few different top clubs there. He arrived in Beijing only three days ago, last night he was brought on before the hour mark and provided two crucial goals, even added an assist at the end.

S: Sounds good, something of a Scandinavian invasion this season in the CSL.

B: Yeah, I don’t know if Hysen’s success with East Asia has clubs looking in that direction or that they’re finding these guys are cheaper but have top experience and can do well in China.

S: They’re following a Scandinavian pioneer from a long time ago who once had the CFA decare war on his long hair…

B: Haha, good one.

S: Well, the China derby really dominates the fixture card this weekend. But what else is worth a look at?

B: To be honest, you’re kinda hard pressed for another match worth watching. Tianjin travel to Shandong, somewhat quietly Tianjin has been moving up the table lately and you gotta wonder how long Cuca’s going to keep his job there.

B: Beyond that, after seeing Harbin take a beating last night, it will be interesting to see how they come back against Jiangsu.

S: Yeah the rest of the fixture card is really meh this weekend, no offence to the other clubs. That’s not to say the other matches will not ultimately be more entertaining affairs than the China derby, of course there’s a distinct possibility they might be. I don’t have a lot to offer the pub on other games. But Harbin are worth focusing on for the reasons you say. I’ve been impressed with the way they’ve pulled themselves away from being cut off completely. Really all to play for at the bottom. And their 2-0 victory the other week over Shandong was probably the shock result of the season. I doubt Cuca will last any longer than the end of the season, if that.

B: Right, I think we’re all sort of pulling for Harbin right now and everyone has an eye on if they can stay up or not. We can talk about ACL spots, but it’s far too early and while 1 and 2 are decided, everything else is wide open. No offense to either side, but beyond watching certain players, it’s hard to be excited about R&F-Shenxin or East Asia-Greentown, for example.

S: Right. As an interesting aside, our correspondent’s match previews this season have revealed that whoever Shenhua play, East Asia play that team in the following round, and then that team plays R&F. How odd.

B: Indeed, that’s certainly a weird quirk of scheduling.

S: Just one of the many curiosities of the CSL.

B: Definitely…On that note, is it time to bring the pub to a close?

S: I think is, it’s been a good session today, thanks to all for joining.

B: Certainly, happy to be drinking with you once again.

S: Likewise, and cheers to that!

B: Cheers mate


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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