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Pub Talk: A thrilling end

Both your correspondents are a bit out of breath this week what with all the excitement at the top and bottom on the final day of the CSL. Your two intrepid drinkers mull over the season that was 2014, looking at the good, the ugly and the awful, and cast optimistic eyes towards next year also. How has the season been for you? Do pull up a stool and lend us your thoughts in the comment section. Cheers all.

B: The CSL season has come to an end with a very familiar result, though the process was much more interesting than in previous years. We’re back in the pub now to discuss that and look back on the 2014 season….hello ultra, my friend

S: Hello B, the Pub is welcoming as ever. We often say we have a lot to talk about, but this week we really do.

B: Well, Evergrande managed a draw away against Shandong to secure their fourth straight title despite going down early. Then Lippi announced he was stepping down as manager immediately after, what say you?

S: I think no-one saw that coming. Or at least, I certainly didn’t.

B: The Lippi stepping down of course, not Evergrande winning the title.

S: Right. As for the title race. Well what can one say really. I watched both games at once, things looked really exciting for a bit when Shandong scored. Evergrande were pissing their pants basically, but a moment of Elkeson excellence brought them back into the game and they looked solid from then on in. Your lot were unluckly not to beat Henan, who spent an awful lot of time rolling around which I always find extremely distasteful. In the end however Evergrande won, but truth be told Guoan have a lot to be proud of this year.

B: As a Guoan fan, I never expected they’d have any shot at the title, so to come so close is reason to be proud, as you say, and not all that disappointing. Evergrande is the best, most consistent team in the league, they came away with a fourth title but this season showed that things are getting tighter, next year won’t be easy, even if Lippi was still in charge.

S: I think Guoan’s run was extremely impressive, any other year the same points haul would have been enough to win the league. However, Evergrande just have the extra ammunition to out-gun everyone else, and they did it again this year, I think they are worthy winners. Next year definitely promises to be interesting. The appointment of Canavaro really is a wildcard, I don’t see how he’s going to take the club further forward, I can imagine Evergrande not winning the CSL next year.

B: Canavaro has zero experience as the man in charge, that’s going to hurt and like I said, it wasn’t going to be easy for Lippi, I can’t imagine the difficulties of the task for Fabio. Elkeson looks set to stay, but they’ll likely lose a few of their key players in the offseason and I think we’re getting to the point that its not just sides like Shandong and Beijing that could give them a fight, I think we’ll see a strong challenge from their crosstown rivals R&F, possibly even East Asia as well.

S: I agree. I think it’s nuts to give such a big job to someone who has never managed before. Being a good player and a good manager are totally different skills. There’s tons of great players out there who couldn’t manage worth a shit.

B: There will be a lot of attention on how things actually work there. I’m sure Lippi made this happen. The conspiracy theorist in me says that Lippi will be pulling the strings, but will take on the China national team position as well after Perrin gets fired following the Asian Cup. I don’t think the CFA was excited having Lippi stay on at Evergrande and take charge of the national team, this way Lippi has it his way.

S: I don’t think thats such a wild theory. Lippi is obviously behind Cannavaro’s appointment, it’s set up so Lippi is his mentor and that is good for Cannavaro but not necessarily Evergrande. I expect China will flop at the Asia Cup, Perrin’s head will roll, then Lippi will be able to hold the China national team job and the Evergrande technical director job concurrently without much hassle. I have a feeling this is exactly what will happen.

B: I kinda wonder why the Evergrande management, including China’s richest man, would allow this, but I guess they see it as helping Chinese football.

S: That’s definitely why it is, Xu Jiayin probably had this in mind right from the start, it would suit his political aspirations perfectly.

B: Yes, Xu’s gotta be happy with all that he’s gotten from the team and I think Jack Ma is willing to go with the flow for the most part.

S: Yeah who knows what Jack Ma is actually getting out of it, aside from looking like a wanker for abandoning his hometown team at the last minute.

B: Not all the drama was at the top of the table, at the bottom Dalian scored a late equalizer against Shenxin and had to be hoping and praying Beijing could break down Henan’s large bus, but nothing happened and for the first time since professional football began in China, there will be no top flight club in Dalian.

S: That’s a sad day. But as we both said the other week, it probably had to happen. Aerbin have been in freefall for most of the season, and their future seems uncertain.

B: Yeah, I can’t say I’m disappointed. While I couldn’t stand some of Henan’s tactics on Sunday, they have a really large fan base and are financially better off than Dalian.

S: That’s right. Who knows what will happen to Dalian.

B: Looking at how things finish, we have Evergrande and Guoan at the very top, R&F stuck at their own level, Shandong and East Asia together and then everyone else. There are very few surprises in that large group of crap, if you’re looking for surprises, I think its how high East Asia finished and equally how low Shandong finished. Granted, Shandong ended up in 4th, but they were 9 points behind R&F and a full 19 behind Guoan.

S: Shandong were definitely this year’s under-achievers by quite some way. Will be interesting to see if Kuka remains there. R&F did well because of the quality of their coaching and scouting, East Asia not far behind them. As for the rest, I agree, really a huge load of mediocrity, with Jiangsu Sainty the best of a bad bunch.

B: I would be surprised if Shandong lets go of Cuca at this point. I know I was regularly expecting Cuca’s ouster throughout the season and it never came, indeed he somewhat turned things around as the season went on. I think it’s good that they saw things out and gave him time to work out the kinks. For all that can be said about Sven, he’s done a good job at R&F and the club has a lot of money and was able to purchase some of the most in demand players, Jiang Zhipeng especially. They also really got lucky with Hamdallah, who was huge for them.

S: I think Sven will be at East Asia next year, but we have to wait to see what is going to happen with that one.

B: Yes, East Asia is being taken over fully by Shanghai International Ports, they seem to have a lot of money that they’re willing to spend on the club, including bringing in Sven. If they spend right and can hold onto Wu Lei and some of the other key youngsters, they’ll be a hell of a side next season.

S: They are said to have an entire operating budget of 64 million Euros. So seems some serious signings will be arriving. However there are discouraging noises coming out of East Asia as regards the new owners fucking about with the identity of the club.

B: I think it’s a wait and see process, while the “team name” has changed consistently, the club identity has remained largely the same, hopefully that will be maintained.

S: I certainly hope so. So looking back over this season, what do you think we can say about the state of the game in China?

B: I think things are looking up. We saw a more competitive season this year and there’s reason to believe that will only get better. There are still 10 teams or so that are just making up the numbers and that doesn’t look like it will change because they seem very happy to just be in the top flight. Attendance continues to go up, including having all clubs over 10k for the first time in many, many years.

S: Yeah. I do think there will be a tighter championship challenge next year. Evergrande may spend big again on more foreign players, but I think they have peaked. At least for the time being. Attendances are healthy, generally it’s been a steady year. In time the steady CSL will translate into a better national team.

B: Again, things are headed in the right direction, we could be talking about a few Chinese players in decent European leagues when the 2015 season starts as well. That would help all the more.

S: It would, we heard Zhang Xizhe may be heading to Holland?

B: That’s what I’ve been hearing, and if it’s true, he’ll end up at a club where he’d definitely have a shot at regular playing time. Guoan has come out and said all the right things, that they’d support him and assist him if he does want to go overseas.

S: Yeah. It would seem it’s all about money now, any idea of fees mentioned?

B: I haven’t heard anything about that yet, but I don’t think that is going to be a stumbling block. I don’t think either of us is optimistic about China’s chances in Australia, but it will be a good stage for a number of the top players.

S: It will be, it’s the best shop window any of them are likely to get for the foreseeable future.

B: More football to enjoy in the offseason, I’m looking forward to it.

S: It’s definitely a welcome distraction for what is usually a rather tedious period in the Chinese football calendar.

B: Yes, it will be nice to have some football to talk about instead of crazy rumors, which are already starting. Wesley Sneijder to Jiangsu, if you will.

S: Ha haha, these rumours have gotten more and more daft since the bigger names started coming a few years ago. It’s all a bit boring and superficial, who really cares about speculation, I just want to know who has actually signed.

B: But this is just how modern football works, rumors are often where negotiations between sides begin, so it’s a reality we have to deal with. Last year we expected the big names to start coming and it didn’t happen. I’m not going to make any prediction about this offseason, but its interesting seeing how India has been able to attract players despite all the reasons you’d think it would be hard. Then again, the CSL is far more established than that league and I think its good the CSL has avoided turning into a retirement home for aging European footballers.

S: I find the Indian Super League a really bizarre concept. Seems like a corporate league set up by people who don’t know what football is, it only lasts two months or something, like some circus tour. Why not just invest in the I-League teams and bring these big players there instead of making these new plastic clubs? It looks like crap to me. At least the CSL has some kind of lore and history about it, the standard of foreign player has risen considerably and it’s definitely not a retirement league i am glad to say.

B: Indeed, so while we’ll never be able to avoid the talk of big name signings, most of them peter out and leave us to enjoy the league as is, without the circus.

S: Yeah and I think this year it turned out well as far as entertainment goes. Next year looks solid, Chongqing are back in the CSL after, I think, 4 years away, Shijiazhuang will make their debut – the manner of their promotion was certainly thrilling. Someone else watching that game said “Football with Chinese characteristics just happened” at the end of their game v Qingdao.

B: Hmm…That sort of surprises me. It was a legitimate penalty to me, maybe a little soft considering the importance of the decision, but the Qingdao player seemed to have his arm wrapped around the Shijiazhuang striker and pulled him twice. If anything the striker should be congratulated for his efforts to stay on his feet instead of making more out of it.

S: I thought it looked pretty dodgy at the time but I have to admit I didn’t see it again. Anyway, Shijiazhuang had numerous chances to put the result beyond reach, they really lost their nerve a bit, but, the end result is at least one new team in the CSL again, I think that’s happened every year since, I think 2010 if memory serves correct.

B: Here’s the play for those who want to watch it themselves. We’ve talked a little this year about promotion, you’re right the past few years we’ve seen new sides make it into the top flight which is good. Shijiazhuang has gotten decent attendance this year so that’s likely to continue and there is sure to be a lot of excitement around the club. I certainly intend on making the trip there.

S: How long does it take to get there from Beijing?

B: Just over an hour, so not quite as close as Tianjin, but we’ll be allowed to travel there, at least for next year.

S: I can imagine there will be a big away crowd for that fixture.

B: Yeah, looking forward to that one. So does that bring this episode of the pub to a close?

S: I think it does mate. Thanks for drinking with me this year.

B: It’s been fun and I’m sure we’ll have a few more pubs for our loyal following before the end of the calendar year.

S: Definitely, the pub will not lay empty for the whole close season.

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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