When Gao Lin found the back of the net in the 82nd minute of Saturday’s Chinese Super League fixture with spirited Shanghai Shenxin, what was to come seemed almost inevitable. However, as the seconds and minutes ticked by it appeared that this weekend would be one of celebration in Beijing, with the gap at the top potentially closing to just four points.
Fast forward to the 93rd minute, though, and recent signing Yu Hanchao was able to ghost in from the right unmarked to head home a Rene Junior cross in the centre of the six-yard box, following a sequence of squandered opportunities from the hosts. The Tianhe Stadium erupted and Evergrande’s dream of a fourth title took another significant step forward. There was simply no time for Shenxin, who had been doing their best to milk every second of the last 15 minutes, to respond.
“It’s not the first time they’ve done this,” commented Beijing Guoan manager Gregorio Manzano when news of the Cantonese side’s equaliser seeped through to his press conference in the capital. “They did it when they played our opponents today [Tianjin Teda] also. Our rivals are very strong.”
In truth, it is rare that the three-time champions should need such a late goal to earn three points in domestic action. They, along with Beijing, are comfortably better than most domestic opposition. However, they have developed a habit of overturning deficits over the past 18-months and, as Manzano attests, they beat Tianjin in similar circumstances not all that long ago. There is an element of luck, but it is also representative of the side’s belief—perhaps even knowledge—that they can overturn most scorelines if given enough time.
Shenxin did their best to run down the clock, including manager Cheng Yaodong at one point appearing to order captain Yu Tao to feign injury. With his ire raised after midfielder Jailton Paraiba saw a harsh second yellow card for a suggested dive when one-on-one with goalkeeper Zeng Cheng, the Shenxin coach would also encroach onto the pitch several times in the closing minutes with the backup of his coaching staff. The match was in danger of descending into farce, but there was one final twist yet to come.
There is a lot still to resolve for coach Marcello Lippi as he first seeks to cement the league title, with the role of compatriots Alessandro Diamanti and Alberto Gilardino foremost amongst those issues, but he can rest easier in the knowledge that his side are frequently able to pull off a result when below par. They were once more on this occasion, but still managed 22 shots and 62 percent of possession. Under such sustained pressure, the hatches were going to buckle eventually.
“Fergie Time” was how the phenomena was christened in Britain during Manchester United’s long era of dominance at the top under Sir Alex Ferguson, but the truth is most top sides are able to pull late goals out of the hat when required—it is frequentlythe difference between glory and failure. Evergrande have fallen behind on eight occasions in their 25 league matches thus far in 2015, winning three of those and drawing a further two. Add in Rong Hao’s dramatic winner in the final minute of last month’s success over Shanghai Shenhua and it is clear that Evergrande don’t do badly with respect to claiming points based on their desire to fight until the end of each and every game.
There is an element of luck, of course. There are games when 90 minutes simply ebb away in spite of the enormous pressure being put on opponents. But, when you consistently score at a rate of 2.5 goals per game over the course of a season, you will win more games than not.
Six points separate Evergrande from rivals Guoan with just five games of the season remaining, including a top of the table clash at Tianhe Stadium in the penultimate weekend. Before that, the reigning champions must overcome local rivals Guangzhou R&F, Hangzhou and Guizhou if they are to maintain their advantage. It is a tough schedule, making some of the post-match proclamations of the club having sealed the title with their late win seem a touch premature, but it is a run of challenges that they have overcome in the past. They have pedigree in this regard.
Victory in the derby next weekend and a Beijing success will almost certainly require victory at the Tianhe Stadium late next month. Having lost to the not so noisy neighbours earlier in the year, the game at the Yuexiushan Stadium will be yet another test of their championship credentials against a side who have saved their best for the big tests this season. The big positive for Chinese football is that we now have a real title race on our hands once again and, hopefully, a Canton derby to savour next weekend in the process.