The blue and whites rounded out their best ever season with a 3-1 win away over Jiangsu Sainty on Sunday. Yuexiushan News looks back over a season to savour for the Cantonese where their improved defence, better away record and fantastic team spirit saw them finish third and so qualify for the ACL next year.
After all the pre-season hype about R&F seriously challenging for ACL qualification this season, shipping a late equaliser on opening day in Tianjin left plenty of fans with a sinking feeling. The sense of déjà vu was heightened by the annual poor performance and loss to Beijing Guoan at Gongti but that, along with a 4-0 humbling away to Henan in August, was as bad as things were to get for the Cantonese.
What has prevented R&F finishing higher than the 7th and 6th they’ve achieved in the previous two seasons has been their failure when the pressure was on, leaving some wondering whether the blue and whites were flat track bullies. That accusation has been dealt with now thanks to a win at Shanghai East Asia and a draw at Shandong in late season games where the final ACL place was still up for grabs. Whilst the derby at Yuexiushan and the home game against East Asia had plenty of excitement, nothing beats the frantic finish against Jiangsu for a pure out-pouring out of joy. Except for the little matter a great performance in the Canton derby at Tianhe when Evergrande were deservedly beaten 1-0 that is.
These highs have been possible because R&F have massively improved their away record on the back of a more solid defence. Partly because of their poor defensive record in previous seasons, away games were almost a write-off before the blue and whites even took to the pitch but something has changed this season and the Cantonese collected more points on the road this year, 28, than in 2012 and 2013 combined, 21. That something has a lot to do with Park Jong-Woo who hassled and harried in midfield to protect the back four which was strengthened by having a real, instead of makeshift, left back in Jiang Zhipeng. Jang Hyun-Soo formed an impressive if not completely error free partnership with captain Jang Yaokun in the heart of defence too. This improvement would’ve been for nothing without a better attitude though.
Smells like team spirit
Underpinning the better away and defensive records is the greater team spirit on display as this year R&F teams have fought back from deficits seven times and continued to play right until the final whistle when in previous years they would’ve folded. Coming back from 3-0 down to both Evergrande, even if ultimately unsuccessfully, and away to Shandong would have previously been unthinkable and the game that set the tone for this was on Easter Sunday when Davi saved R&F in stoppage time.
Nobody thought replacing the 26 goals scored by Yakubu and Rapahel Coelho last season would be easy but prolific Moroccan striker Abderazzak Hamdallah almost did it single-handedly as he scored 22 goals in 22 games. Davi also registered his highest goal tally in his three years at the club as he benefitted from a run of early season penalties to notch 14 goals in the year whilst mid-season signing Aaron Olanare got to use his celebratory backflip eight times. Domestically, Jiang Ning came out on top but Jiang Zhipeng had a strong contender for R&F goal of the season as the defender showed why he wears 11 on his back with a rocket from outside the box. Continuing the pattern set in previous years, there won’t be many defenders who looked forward to the video sessions reviewing games against R&F.
Guangzhou R&F finished some distance behind the top two but a similar distance ahead of the chasing pack and their reward for what turned out to be a comfortable finish as ‘best of the rest’ is a place it the ACL next year. However, the blue and whites will have to come through one or possibly two qualifying rounds before securing their status in the ACL proper so they will have an early start to the season come 2015.
ACL group-stage qualification is not a given but the club must plan for it because the current squad doesn’t have enough strength in depth to cope with two games a week if they do qualify. Despite the relatively young side, only two of the regular starting XI are 30 or above, extra players will need to be brought in to provider higher quality cover, especially in defence. Sven believes youth team players Cheng Zepeng and Fu Yunlong will be competing for places next year but with captain Zhang now 33 a new centre back will still be the top priority. This holds true even if the blue and whites don’t make the ACL group stage as defence is the area that most obviously needs to be improved.
Hamdallah, Olanare, Park and Jang are all under contract for next season and Davi has already expressed an interest in renewing his contract so, barring any potential moves abroad, it would be no surprise if R&F had the same overseas contingent next year. Along with Davi, local hero Lu Lin should also have his contract extended. The biggest statement of intent the club could make at this stage though is not to allow East Asia to poach Sven and instead keep the Swede in charge for what is sure to be another interesting season at Yuexiushan in 2015.