Guangzhou Evergrande’s 2015 season began with a whimper in the Chinese Super Cup earlier this month, a competition which the four-time Super League champions have largely treated as a sideshow over recent campaigns.
Given the Cantonese side sent out a team bereft of new signings Ricardo Goulart and Alan, it is perhaps fair that the penalty shootout defeat to rivals Shandong Luneng raised barely a murmur of concern among local media ranks.
With the Chinese New Year festivities now having come and gone, many see this Wednesday’s repeat of the 2013 AFC Champions League final against FC Seoul as the true start of the new season.
The overseas personnel of both sides are much changed from that memorable clash of Asian heavyweights, but the familiarity remains. For new coach Fabio Cannavaro, it is a great opportunity to gauge his side’s readiness for the campaign ahead in which they will bid for a fifth consecutive league title.
Few know Evergrande as a club quite as well as journalist Feng Zhen of the Guangzhou-based Southern Metropolis Daily, a mainstay of the local media following the club since the real estate giant’s takeover in 2011 and so it is to Feng that we turn for an insight into the club’s preparations for the season ahead.
What, then, can supporters at the Tianti look forward to over the next 12 months?
: Evergrande begin the 2015 season with a new “executive head coach” in Fabio Cannavaro, who replaces the great Marcello Lippi. How do you think things will change and what is the media’s perception of Cannavaro so far?
Feng: For the moment we still don’t have a great idea of how Cannavaro will be as a manager as we are yet to see his side in a competitive game. However, we will be able to gather a few thoughts from his choice of players for the Champions League. If Elkeson, [Ricardo] Goulart and Alan are all included, with Rene Junior left out, I think it’s fair to say he is a very conservative coach as all three Chinese midfielders in the 4-3-3 setup will be primarily defensive minded.
The team will be returning to the principals of fast counter-attacking. I don’t think he will be pretty similar to Lippi as a coach, with little change as far as the team’s tactical setup is concerned.
Last season, a lot of the focus was on Evergrande’s midfield struggles in the post-Conca era and there has been some surprise that they have not signed a similar playmaker this off-season. Do you think this will continue to be a problem in 2015?
They will certainly be less dominant in midfield, with Goulart not the type of midfielder who can control the rhythm of the team. He is a creative player in attacking areas, but not a player who can offer complete creative control like Conca.
There will be some issues with midfield control in the Champions League. Zheng Zhi is getting a little old, while Huang Bowen lacks the ability to organise games at the highest level. I think Evergrande will continue to rely on the individual abilities of their three attacking foreign players to settle games, rather than attacking as a team unit.
Last season, Evergrande were run close by Guoan and the standard of foreign players across the league has increased markedly this off-season. Do you see anyone denying Cannavaro’s boys a fifth consecutive Super League title?
Evergrande still have the strongest team—their foreign players are the best in the league, while they have many Chinese internationals—so as long as they maintain their will to win they should still be champions. If they fail to win the title this season, they will only need to look at themselves.
Guoan reached their peak level as a side last season, it is hard to see them matching those levels this time around. Shandong, meanwhile, have never fully managed to gel as a team, so I’m still not sure what we will see from them this year. As such, I think Evergrande will still claim the title in the end.
If the league is set to be straightforward once more, what can we expect in the Champions League? Evergrande won the title in 2013 and have reached the knockout stages three years in a row. What’s the aim this year? Can other Chinese sides kick on and challenge also?
The minimum target this year has to be to get into the final, otherwise it has to count as a failure. The newly announced Champions League budgets will really act as an incentive in doing that, just as it did in 2013.
This team must already be considered very mature as a unit, while they also have the best foreign players in Asian football. Therefore, it’s fair to say their overall level is above that of other Chinese sides in the competition. While Luneng have the likes of [Walter] Montillo and [Diego] Tardelli, as well as a host of Chinese internationals, they have never managed to gain the stability that Evergrande offer. Because of that, the two sides remain on different levels.
When it comes to Guoan, their overall ability is pretty good but they lack a cutting edge. At the the moment, you would have to say only Evergrande are right at the forefront of Asian football.
If any Chinese speaking readers wish to follow Feng Zhen and his updates on Evergrande’s season, you can read his updates on Weibo or in the Southern Metropolis Daily 南方都市报 newspaper.