Sunday marked the end of a dramatic 2014 CSL season in very anti-climatic fashion. There was a lot of happiness early when word of Shandong’s goal made its way across the stands, but unfortunately word of another Luneng score proved false. Instead it was an Evergrande equalizer meaning whatever happened at Gongti was meaningless (at least from Guoan’s perspective). The match ended with title-like celebrations on Henan’s part, making me wonder how wild things would have been if things went a little differently.
Parking the bus
Henan played much of the match with eight in defense and Guoan simply couldn’t break it down, there were a few chances here and there, but not much. Henan also seemed to spend time rolling and lying on the Gongti grass as if they were in bed with a supermodel. For what seemed like at least 70% of the second half, Guoan was attacking down the right wing with Zhou Ting and Zhang Chengdong trying to send in a good cross. To say Henan was overly defensive is an understatement, but this was the Guoan side from the first half of the season, one that controlled the ball and attack, but couldn’t break down a defense. It was my complaint about Pablo Batalla for much of the year and why Erton really made a difference. Fortunately the Evergrande draw made this all academic or else it would have been even more painful.
A season to remember
This year was the best in recent memory, the only one that tops it was 2009’s title season. Guoan beat eight sides twice, won at Hongkou, Tianhe, and Huanglong for the first time in years (or ever in the case of the first two), and won seven straight matches down the stretch. Twenty of their league matches came down to a one goal difference (or were draws). It wasn’t until the end of May that Guoan scored more than two goals in a match but they were impressive none the less, with a greater variety of players contributing during the season’s opening months, when the club was also fighting in the Asian Champions League. They managed nine points in the ACL, but once again it was FC Seoul that hurt them, the 2-1 loss on the last matchday guaranteed that Guoan wouldn’t make it out of the group. Beijing’s failure to advance through the CFA Cup was equally disappointing, Xu Yunlong’s missed penalty a moment that really stands out and seems like a real blown shot at a title, but such is football and that bitter moment will stand alongside the highs (the comebacks in Jiangsu & Hangzhou, Shao’s free kick, etc), making them even sweeter.
Start thinking about next year
For fans the off season will be centered around two issues, whether Zhang Xizhe goes to Europe and whether the club can sign Erton. The front office says they are willing to support Zhang and assist him if he wants to go overseas, it just depends on the offer. With Erton, it seems there’s a deal to be made, but that nothing has gotten done before he left isn’t a good sign. The other starters aren’t going anywhere but some key rotation players like Yu Yang and Piao Cheng may be on their way out, not insignificant losses. One important difference is that Manzano will have a full off season with the club and won’t be appointed less than a month before the league season (and a week before the ACL) starts. They will need to add a little depth, especially in defense, and could use another national team quality player, especially if Zhang goes, but there is plenty of reason to be confident about the club’s title hopes in 2015.