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Wuhan Weekly: Zall down but not quite out in race for promotion

Wuhan claimed four points from their last two games to maintain faint hopes of promotion as rival Shijiazhuang stutter in Xinjiang. Zheng Bin’s team continues to under perform while a Brazilian understudy gets his fifteen minutes of fame.

The Games

12/10/2014 – Qingdao Hainiu 2-3 Wuhan Zall;

While the Super League took a week off for the international break, there was no rest for Wuhan as China League One hurtled towards its (potentially) exciting conclusion. Having witnessed promotion rivals Shijiazhuang get an impressive 2-0 win at home to Beijing Baxy the day before, Wuhan headed to the Shandong Peninsula to defeat a woefully out of form Hainiu side 3-2. The home team had taken just two points out of a possible twenty-seven before this encounter (including this week’s results it is now two from thirty-three) and had failed to win at home since June. So it shouldn’t have come as a great surprise when Uruguayan talisman Sergio Leal opened the scoring after 35 minutes. The scoreline remained the same until 21 year-old Kang Zhenjie headed in his first senior goal to double the lead after 57 minutes. Five minutes later, Cameroonian defender Yves Ekwalla Herman headed in a Ma Long cross to give the “Manatees” hope of a late comeback but it wasn’t to be. On 72 minutes Leal bagged his eleventh goal of the season and a late penalty from Herman was not enough to stop the Hubei side returning home with all three points.

18/10/2014 -Wuhan Zall 1-1 Shenzhen Ruby

While the win in Qingdao kept Wuhan in the promotion race, their first half performance at home to Shenzhen Ruby was more akin to a side battling relegation. In the end Babacar Gueye’s 36th minute strike was cancelled out by a 66th minute header from substitute Tassio and both sides shared the points. To be fair, neither team dazzled in the opening period, but when one considers that the visitors had little to play for and were probably more concerned with where there next pay packet was coming from, the onus for making a game of it was certainly on the home team. As neither side looked like creating anything worthwhile in the opening period, it was no surprise that a defensive error was needed for Shenzhen to take the lead. Less than ten minutes before half-time, centre-back Ai Zhibo headed what should have been a routine clearance straight to Gueye. The Senegalese forward gratefully accepted his gift by knocking the ball passed an off balance Ai and lifting it delicately over goalkeeper Wu Yan to notch his fifteenth goal of the season. Unfortunately, the strike had little impact on the quality or tempo of the game and fans breathed a sigh of relief when the referee’s whistle brought the first-half to a close.

Nowhere to Hide: Ai Zhibo is mortified after his mistake gifts Shenzhen the lead

Nowhere to Hide: Ai Zhibo is mortified after his mistake gifts Shenzhen the lead

The half-time introduction of Brazilian forward Tassio in place for young midfielder Kang Zhenjie had no immediate effect as Wuhan continued to offer little against opponents demonstrating only a minimal interest in adding to their lead. But, as the half progressed, an improving Zall slowly eased their way into a dominant position before two substitutions around the hour mark definitively turned the tide. The first was Wuhan’s introduction of striker Tan Si which gave the hosts a much more attacking set-up. The second, was the withdrawal of Shenzhen goalscorer Gueye which drew significant cheers from the home fans. While he’d done little else in the game apart from scoring and getting booked for dissent, a player who has scored 61 goals in three League One seasons is always a threat and his departure signalled the end of any remote chance the Guangdong side had of breaking away to sore a second. Indeed, it wasn’t long after this double change that the equaliser came. Ever dangerous winger Yao Hanlin found some space down the right and was able to knock a low cross into the box which, much to the amazement of the crowd, a stooped Tassio was able to nudge in with a lose range header. It was the muh maligned striker’s first goal for the club and it sent the home fans and players into a frenzy of excitement. For the next fifteen minutes Zall poured forward and created numerous opportunities which went unrewarded. Shenzhen could do nothing more than sit back and launch occasional half-hearted counterattacks, but they were somehow able to weather the storm before the game petered out into a much calmer final ten minutes. Despite being the better team over the 90 minutes, Wuhan were unable to find the winner and only have themselves to blame for not going after the game earlier.

The Review

Dropping two points in a game they should have won became all the more galling an hour or so later when the final score came in from Shijiazhuang’s away game against Xinjiang Tianshan Leopard. A 38th minute goal from osta Rican Allan Aleman was enough to give the home side a surprise 1-0 win in Urumqi and condemn the visitors to a long miserable journey back to Hebei. Had Wuhan defeated Shenzhen, they would have been equal on points with second place Shijiazhuang; trailing only because of their inferior head-to-head record. As it stands, the gap is still two points and Wuhan need their rivals to drop at least three points in their final two games. Unfortunately, a trip to relegation-bound Chengdu Tiancheng and subsequent home clash with the aforementioned out of form Qingdao Hainiu makes this highly unlikely.

Even before this week’s disappointing result, most Zall fans had given up on their team’s promotion prospects. Only 5,800 witnessed this game on a pleasant Saturday afternoon and while this is would be an impressive number for most League One teams, it pales in comparison to the 10,000 plus who had been regularly attending prior to the sacking of coach Drazen Besek and subsequent run of three straight losses that seriously derailed hopes of a Super League return. Indeed, there are many around Hubei’s capital that believe their team’s owners have deliberately sabotaged their run at promotion because of worries over the financial implications of re-entering the Super League and the team’s inability to be competitive once there.

Whatever the truth, this conspiracy theory masks a very simple truth that in key areas Wuhan have just not been good enough this season. Amongst their Chinese playing staff Yao Hanlin has stood out as a dangerous player, while fellow attacker Zhu Ting and full-back Ke Zhao have consistently put in competent, if not headline grabbing, performances. Centre-back Ai Zhibo, brought back to Hubei from Jiangsu Sainty in the summer, has shown his potential to be a rock at the back but, as his mistake this week demonstrates, is not entirely reliable. Song Zhiwei has performed adequately in his first season in Wuhan as a holding midfielder and emergency centre-back, but, otherwise, the team has been lacking quality. There is no decent passing midfielder who can move the ball quickly from defence to attack and this was a particular problem against Shenzhen. Li Gen, in particular, seems incapable of doing anything more than receiving the ball at his feet, leisurely strolling around with it and causally laying it back to a defender with all the urgency of a Buddhist monk meditating in an effort to attain Nirvana.

"How was it for you?" Tassio celebrates his first goal in a Wuhan shirt.

“How was it for you?” Tassio celebrates his first goal in a Wuhan shirt.

Of their foreign contingent, Senegalese centre-back Jacques Faty and Sergio Leal have both done enough to earn their salaries, but incompetent Brazilian Tassio is a different proposition. There was much sighing when he came on against Shenzhen and his first 20 minutes on the pitch did little to sway the fans in his favour. Headers were mistimed, balls ricocheted off shins and simple passes were mislaid. But, suddenly, the unthinkable happened. He scored a header and, as well as prompting many fans to literally laugh with surprise, proceeded to look like a passable football player. It is often said that a goal can give a striker confidence and this was certainly the case for the Brazilian who almost had a post-coital glow as he chased down lost causes, won ariel duels, successfully held up play and, most surprising of all, drifted back into his own half to collect a pass. Alas, it wasn’t to last. As Wuhan’s fifteen minute post-goal flurry came to an end, his endorphins began to wear off and he spent the last ten minutes bumbling around the field like the Tassio Wuhan fans have become all too familiar with. Joking aside, it’s a shame to see a player struggling so much to adapt to their new environment and one hopes that he can build upon his brief upturn in form. Unfortunately, at his current strike rate, his next quarter hour of after goal bliss will be about ten game into next season and, whatever league they’re in, it would be surprising if he is still be a Wuhan player by then.

Coming up…

This coming weekend, Wuhan head north to Jilin to face the just relegated Yanbian Changbai Tigers. The bottom-of-the-table side are coming off the back of four straight losses and have won only three games all season. It should be a routine win and, while it would not come as a total shock if the Hubei side were to make a hash of it, most fans will have at least one eye on goings on in Sichuan where Chengdu have to beat Shijiazhuang in order to have any hope of staying up. Should the promotion tussle still be on come the final game of the season, Zall will need to get something out of their home clash with table-topping Chongqing Lifan. Wuhan and Shijiazhuang’s respective failures this week not only secured Chongqing’s promotion but the League One title as well. It is richly deserved for a team that, as well as losing only two games all season, has scored more and conceded less than anyone else in the league. It is also good news for Wuhan who would have little chance of beating a Lifan side who still have something to play for, but may be able to turn over a team lethargic from the over-consumption of celebratory hotpots and an eye on an upcoming season in the Super League. As for who is going to join them there, that is yet to be decided.

Time for an early holiday?:  Chongqing celebrate their well-deserved promotion

Time for an early holiday?: Chongqing celebrate their well-deserved promotion

Based in China for five years, Jamie has been exploring tiny little third tier Hubei cities without football teams or decent internet connections, but is now a regular at China League One side Wuhan Zall. A keen football afficionado, he regularly takes in the Chinese Super League, enjoying matches in Shanghai, Hangzhou, Guangzhou and Nanjing. Jamie is also a keen observer of the fortunes of the Chinese National side.

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