A last gasp Ryan McGowan header gave Shandong Luneng a 5-4 aggregate victory over Jiangsu Sainty in an emotional FA Cup Final second leg in Nanjing. A pair of controversial penalties two weeks ago in Jinan had given Luneng a 4-2 lead going into the game, but Jiangsu’s away goals almost proved decisive as they took a 2-0 lead at home and were just seconds away from winning the first FA Cup in their history.
CFA CUP FINAL 2ND LEG
Jiangsu Sainty 2
Roda Antar 11′(pen)
Shandong Luneng 1
McGowan 90 (+5)’
Shandong Luneng win 5-4 on aggregate
Roda Antar, had put Jiangsu in front on 11 minutes when Luneng goalkeeper Wang Dalei spilled a cross under heavy pressure from Sainty’s Eleilson. Wang argued that he had been impeded by the towering Brazilian, but there was nothing contentious about the home side’s second as Eleilson diverted a Yang Xiaotian free-kick into the net with a precise diving header in the 59th minute.
The goal put Jiangsu ahead in the tie and seemed to have won it for them until McGowan’s heroics. In the fifth and final minute of injury time, Wang Dalei came into the opposition penalty area for a Shandong free kick and, in amongst a bevy of bodies, challenged opposite number Deng Xiaofei for the ball.
Deng was unable to claim it and McGowan reacted quickly to head the loose ball just beyond the reach of Ji Xiang, who was defending on the line, and into the empty net. Understanding the significance of his goal, The Australian immediately hopped the barrier and sprinted, shirtless, towards the enormous contingent of travelling supporters who were deliriously celebrating a Chinese record fifth FA up triumph and qualification for next year’s Champion’s League.
Over 51,000 fans attended the match and, along with the several thousand Luneng fans who made the short trip from their neighbouring province, the Jiangsu faithful – including many who missed a significant portion of the first half while queuing to pick up pre-purchased tickets – created a raucous atmosphere. Even before kick off there was much for home fans to discuss as Head Coach Gao Hongbo not only switched from this season’s favoured 5-4-1 to a more standard 4-2-3-1, but replaced Brazilian striker Elias with compatriot Eleilson who is usually a centre back. In fact, Eleilson had played the last ten minutes of the first leg in the same role, but it seemed to many to be a risky decision that was largely vindicated as the big man made up for his lack of finesse by launching his hulking frame after every loose ball and lost cause.
Another significant change made by Gao was shifting Roda Antar from his more frequent role of anchoring the back five to the centre of the attacking midfield three just behind Eleilson. It was yet another switch that seemed to have paid off when, after early pressure, the Lebanese captain opened the scoring in the 11th minute. Yang Xiaotian played a corner in from the right and Wang Dalei seemed to have claimed the ball, only to fumble it on the way down. Antar responded quickest and was able to sweep the ball into the empty net. There immediately followed a storm of Shandong protest led by Wang, who looked to have had his right shoulder pulled down by Eleilson while plucking the ball out of the air, but the referee remained unmoved and Jiangsu were just one goal away from going ahead in the tie.
The home side continued to have the better of a first half which lacked quality but had plenty of passion and physicality to keep fans interested. Jiangsu, who defended far more resolutely than they had in the first leg, picked up three first half bookings and there were several occasions when it looked as though tensions might boil over in to all out violence.
Despite failing to find a rhythm, Shandong did have an excellent chance to equalise in first half stoppage time when Deng Xiofei made a hash of collecting a corner and Zhao Mingjian was able to direct a close range shot goalwards. Fortunately for Deng, Eleilson was there to block on the line and ensure his team went into the break with their lead in tact.
Although Sainty could be happy with their first half performance, a one goal margin wasn’t enough for an overall victory and they seemed to come out with more purpose in the second half. The best of several half-chances fell to Antar who, in the 55th minute, was able to hold off defensive pressure and manoeuvre himself into position to hook an unorthodox overhead kick just over the bar. Just four minutes later, Jiangsu were 2-0 up on the day and on top over the two legs thanks to a beautifully performed diving header from Eleilson. Yang Xiaotian’s in-swinging free kick was met by the Brazilian on the penalty spot and he gave Wang no chance to make a save by guiding the ball into the bottom corner.
Eleilson’s goal changed the complexion of the game and within minutes, both sides had made significant tactical changes. Shandong’s Chinese international striker Han Peng was introduced for young defensive midfielder Li Wei, while Jiangsu returned to a back five – midfielder Liu Jianye making way for Elias and Eleilson dropping back into his more familiar centre back role.
This set up a final half hour in which Shandong pressured heavily and their opponents tried to hit them with a decisive third goal on the counter. Jiangsu held out well but may have been fortunate to not concede at least one penalty. In the 73rd minute, Luneng broke quickly from a corner via the pace of 21 year-old Liu Binbin. An initial shot from Vagner Love was cleanly blocked by Eleilson, but after Sainty failed to clear their lines, a second effort from Love was deflected wide by the big Brazilian with what Shandong claimed to be an arm. Several players rushed the referee and midfielder Junior Urso was booked for aggressively haranguing the official in a manner that might have led to him seeing red in another country. Five minutes later, Shandong Head Coach Cuca and many of his bench stormed the field in protest when Vagner Love looked to have been tripped by newly introduced substitute Tao Yuan. The referee was again uninterested and home fans breathed another sigh of relief.
Shandong continued to press and, just before their second penalty claim, made another attacking substitution by bringing on striker Aloisio in exchange for midfielder Urso. This opened up the game even more and tension built to a fever pitch amongst the home supporters as their team had a couple of excellent opportunity to kill off the game, the best of which was squandered by Elias. In the 85th minute, left back Ren Hang surged into the Shandong area and forced a low diving save from Wang which bounced up to the Brazilian in front of the open goal. He swung an errant leg at the ball, but was unable connect cleanly the first time and stabbed a second effort wide, much to the chagrin of teammates and supporters.
As the game moved into the five allocated minutes of stoppage time, things became increasingly chaotic. Jiangsu winger, Sun Ke recieved a second booking, but was able to play on for almost a minute before actually being made to leave the field. And the disorganisation continued as Montillo lined up the final free kick and Gao Hongbo tried to withdraw Elias for Zhang Xiaobin. The change was displayed on the board and announced in the stadium but, for whatever reason, the Brazilian remained on the field as Gao and Zhang looked on. Wang Dalei climbed over Elias to meet the ball ahead of Deng Xiaofei and a few seconds later, every Shandong player had left the pitch to accompany McGowan’s wild celebrations in front of the Luneng supporters.
Amidst the stunned silence of the home supporters, celebratory flares were thrown, coaches rolled around on the ground with players and stadium officials began to bring the trophy presentation podium onto the field. This proved to be a few seconds premature as there was time for last passage of play which almost led to Shandong scoring a second. Ultimately, it didn’t matter though and as soon as Deng Xiaofei put the ball back into play the final whistle was blown, the home team fell dejectedly to the turf and the 2014 FA Cup winners returned to their fans to bask in the glory.
Jiangsu fans and players were understandably devastated, but it seemed a fitting end to both an epic two leg contest and a remarkable Chinese domestic season which has witnessed incredible comebacks, dramatic late winners and last minute promotions. McGowan’s winner gives Shandong Champion’s League football to look forward to next season but it should also give all fans of football in China optimism that 2015 and is going to be another excellent year.
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