Wuhan snapped a three game losing streak last weekend, but it is likely to prove too little too late in their quest for an instant return to the top flight. Still, lumbering Brazilians aside, there’s room for optimism and, as a Zall supporter, sometimes optimism is all you have.
The Game – Wuhan Zall 1-0 Chengdu Tiancheng
There was relief at the Xinhua Road Stadium this Saturday as Wuhan Zall were able to halt a slide of three straight losses with a narrow but deserved victory over a poor Chengdu Tiancheng side that look doomed to relegation. The sides were separated by a Sergio Leal strike just two minutes after the restart, which was just what the game needed after a low tempo opening period.
Indeed, it was Leal who provided the only excitement for home fans in the first half through an acrobatic scissor kick which travelled some distance over the top. However, it was the away side which came closest to breaking the deadlock when Zhang Zhichao’s close range shot hit the underside of the bar inside the first fifteen minutes. Occasional half chances aside, there was little else to suggest either team was capable of breaking the deadlock in the second half. However, Zall have only drawn two games all season, with none of them being goalless, and they weren’t prepared to share the points here either. Many home supporters had barely returned to their seats, when the Sichuan side won a free kick in a dangerous position. But a poor delivery led to a quick break with midfielder Yao Hanlin dribbling deep into opposition territory from the edge of his own penalty area. Just as it looked like he was about to run out of space, 20 yards from goal, he was able to roll the ball leftwards to a galloping Leal who then lofted it over goalkeeper Zhang Yinou and in off the far post. After taking the lead, the home side looked comfortable and could have added to their tally with three decent set piece headers. The first saw Leal force an excellent save from Zhang, the second was nodded just over by Ai Zhibo and the third was drilled downwards into the base of the post by Zhu Ting. Fortunately, with their opponents offering little threat, Wuhan weren’t made to rue their wastefulness and held on to take all three points.
The Current Situation
This game was poorly attended by Wuhan’s standards and while some of this can be accounted for by the disruption the National Day holiday causes to people’s regular schedules, the air of pessimism in the ground before kickoff was an indication that the low turnout was, at least in part, a consequence of on field problems. Three consecutive losses to top half teams have all but ended Zall’s hopes of the second place finish needed to secure promotion back to the Super League and the most significant of these was last week’s 2-0 defeat away to nearest rivals Shijiazhuang Yongchang which opened up a five point gap between the teams.
While the results have been bad, what had been disappointing the Hubei faithful the most were the uninspiring and uninterested performances they were being subjected to by their team. On August 29th, Croatian coach Drazen Besek was controversially sacked and replaced by his assistant, local boy and former China international, Zheng Bin. Zheng won his first two games in charge, but a 2-1 loss away to Hunan Billows was followed by a spectacular capitulation at home to Beijing Baxy on September 20th. Seemingly cruising at 2-1 with 30 minutes to go, the home side completely forgot how to pass, tackle or run and were lucky to escape with only a 3-2 defeat. This led to fans chanting for the removal of the new coach, and added further fuel to the theory that Wuhan’s owners have deliberately sabotaged the teams run at the top flight because of the high cost of running a Super League teams and fears that they will be subjected to another humiliating last place finish like they were in 2013. However, while some shouts for Zheng’s head could be heard at half-time of the latest fixture, a feeling of optimism had descended over the stadium by the time of the final whistle. It remains to be seen how long that it will last.
This victory, coupled with second place Shijiazhuang’s scoreless stalemate away to Hunan Billows, means that Wuhan have narrowed the gap to three points with four games remaining. Unfortunately, Yongchang’s superior head to head record means that it’s effectively four points and, therefore, Zall need their rivals to drop points at least twice in their last four games to stand any chance of an immediate return to the top flight.
Shijiazhuang’s fate aside, Wuhan’s biggest concern is winning their own matches – something far from guaranteed. One good half against a relegation bound team changes little, and Wuhan still have big problems on the field. Foremost among them is the absence of Senegalese centre-back Jacques Faty who injured his hamstring in Shijiazhuang. Against Chengdu, his central defensive partner, Wuhan native Ai Zhibo, finally stepped up and put in the kind of dominant performance worthy of the adulation the fans have given him since he moved back to Hubei from Jiangsu Sainty in the summer. However, the need for holding midfielder Song Zhiwei to move back and partner him has left a vacancy in the former Hangzhou man’s position. On Saturday, that was filled by Shanghai Shenhua loanee Xiong Fei who looked lightweight in the role.
Their other key problem is at striker. As his goal this week suggests, Uruguayan Sergio Leal is doing a reasonable job there, but he is more suited to playing in behind the forward. Unfortunately, due to the shocking performances of Brazilian summer signing Tassio, he has been forced further up the field. To say that Tassio has been a disappointment is an understatement. A tall, physically imposing player, he has been remarkably poor in every facet of his game. Despite his stature, he rarely wins aerial duels; he’s unable to hold the ball up and keep possession; he’s seldom in position to take a shot, let alone score; and, worst of all, he looks lazy and barely moves to make himself available to teammates. After several poor performances, he’s been demoted to a role as “impact” substitute – with his biggest impact being to negatively affect his team’s possession statistics and make his own fans groan.
However, it’s unfair to blame Wuhan’s attacking woes entirely on the lumbering Brazilian. In general, the midfield lacks any real creativity (though it would have more if Leal were free to play there) and the team’s best opportunities generally come from counter-attacks and set-pieces. With Zhu Ting, Ai Zhibo, Song Zhiwei and Faty (if fit), Zall generally have a stronger physical presence than most opponents and are a real threat from free-kicks and corners. Unfortunately, delivery from the likes of midfielder Li Gen, is often sub-standard. When it is, as it was in the second-half against Chengdu, their likelihood of scoring is greatly increased.
The good news is that their next three games are against beatable opponents. This Sunday they head to the Shandong Peninsula to face Qingdao Hainiu, and while they only scraped a 1-1 draw with an injury time equaliser in their last meeting, Wuhan will be hoping that the “Sea Cows” will be distracted by the bright lights of their FA Cup semi-final against Shandong Luneng and a lack of anything to play for in League One. After that, Zall will be favourites to take the three points in games at home to mid-table Shenzhen Ruby and away to relegation bound Yanbian Baekedu/Changbai Shan/Tigers (as the fixture is over two weeks away there’s a reasonable chance they’ll have a new name before kickoff) – especially when one considers they have only dropped eleven points against teams outside the top six all season. The bad news is that the final game of the season is at home to high-flying leaders Chongqing Lifan. If Wuhan’s record against lesser opposition is impressive, their performances against fellow top six teams have been far less encouraging. They have taken only seven points from a possible twenty-seven and, in July, were welcomed back from the World Cup summer break with a 3-0 hammering in Chongqing. Should they still be in the promotion race on the final day of the season, Zall’s best hope of getting the result they need from this game is that Lifan have already secured the title and are already on their holidays by the time they arrive in Hubei.