Jiangsu Sainty may have lost their first Super League game of the season 2-1 away to Shanghai SIPG and beaten Guizhou 2-0 at home in their second but that doesn’t mean it’s too late to look at their prospects over the next 28 games. Only champions Guangzhou Evergrande boast more current Chinese internationals than the Nanjing side who will be looking to improve on last year’s eighth place finish.
The manager: Former national team coach Gao Hongbo is probably the best known Chinese manager currently in the Super League. After retiring as a player in 1998, the 49-year-old began his managerial career in 1999 but achieved notoreity in 2007 when he took over as the boss of Changchun Yatai. His debut season saw him guide the northeast side to the Super League title and, although he was sacked because of poor results midway through the following year, his excellent achievement with Changchun was enough to convince the CFA to appoint him national team boss in April 2009.
With China already eliminated from the 2010 World Cup qualifiers, Gao’s focus was on January 2011’s Asian Cup for which he successfully qualified. However, once in Qatar, the team were knocked out in the group stages which seriously tarnished Gao’s standing.
He was evetually dismissed in August of that year and returned to the club game in 2012 when he oversaw Guizhou Renhe’s debut season in Guiyang while also leading them to a fourth place league finish and a CFA Cup final. The following year he guided the newly promoted Shanghai SIPG to mid-table and he took over at Sainty in time for the 2014 season.
Gao’s first year in Nanjing was a mixed one. The team’s eighth place finish was a significant improvement on the previous year’s thirteenth, but was still somewhat of a disappointment considering the fact that the side finished as runners-up in 2012. He did lead the team to the CFA Cup final, but will be expected to get more out of a side boasting six players from the national squad which performed above expectations at the recent Asian Cup.
History: The club can trace its roots back to the 1950s and was a founder member of China’s first professional Jia-A League in 1994. However, they were relegated in that opening year and spent the subsequent fourteen seasons outside of the top flight.
The club took the Sainty name in 2000 and finally achieved promotion in 2008 as League One Champions. Steady progress in the following years saw the team peak by finishing runners-up in 2012, and qualifying for their first ever AFC Champions’ League, before dropping off badly in 2013.
Stadium: Like many Super League teams, Sainty play in a hulking Olympic stadium complete with running track. However, unlike many Super League teams, they actually get pretty close to filling it from time to time.
The 61,000 capacity Nanjing Olympic Sports Centre Stadium has its own subway station not too far from the centre of Nanjing and, while it can often be less than half full, over 50,000 fans crammed in there on more than one occasion last season. In fact, in both 2012 and 2013, Sainty’s home matches with Guangzhou Evergrande were the highest attended games in the entire season Super League season. If you live in Nanjing and are interested in going to a match there’s some slightly outdated but generally relevant information here.
The Team: Sainty finished eighth last season in a mediocre league campaign in which neither relegation nor Champions’ League qualification looked like a possibility.While he occasionally played the 4-2-3-1 formation he is more famous for, Gao generally favoured a 5-4-1. Although, if this seasons opener is anything to go by, Sainty may have reverted to a back four.
While 2014 was an improvement on 2013, there is no doubt that the team could have done better. In a league where at least seven of your starting players have to be Chinese, any team that can lay claim to supplying over a quarter of the national team squad should consider a mid-table finish a disappointment.
With current China manager Alain Perrin basing many of his squad choices on a players diversity and commitment rather than pure talent, the argument could be made that those Sainty players were picked ahead of many of their more gifted peers from other Super League teams. However, four of the squad, Wu Xi, Ren Hang, Ji Xiang and Sun Ke, featured regularly in China’s most successful team in over a decade and so that seems like an unconvincing assessment.
The Changes: Another reason given for Jiangsu’s mediocrity in 2014 was their lack of quality foreign players, but four of last year’s foreign contingent have been moved on to be replaced by Sammir, Sergio Escudero, Vloar Orn Kjartansson and Solvi Ottessen.
Having played in last summer’s World Cup with Croatia, midfielder Sammir is the pick of the bunch and the way that he bossed the game against Shanghai SIPG following his half time introduction bodes well for the future. Attacker Escudero arrives from FC Seoul, while Icelandic centre back Ottessen comes from Ural in the Russian league. Striker Kjartansson, a compatriot of Ottesen, comes from the Norwegian league and despite scoring Sainty’s goal against SIPG, he was also guilty of missing several opportunities which leaves question marks over his long term potential.
From last year’s crop, Roda Antar, Elias, Yoon Sin-young and Edinson Toloza are all out the door. Of the four, only Super League stalwart Antar could be said to have had a decent 2014, with forwards Elias and Toloza performing particularly disappointingly and often leaving Sainty toothless in attack.
The only domestic signing has come in the shape of goalkeeper Zhang Sipeng who was a career back up at Beijing Guo’an but looks like he may be first choice in Nanjing. The notable domestic losses are midfielder Deng Zhuoxiang, who moves to Shanghai Shenhua, and goalkeeper Guan Zhen, who transferred to Shijiazhuang Ever Bright.
The Foreigners: Apart from Kjartansson’s decent strike rate in Norway, not that much is known about the new Icelandic arrivals, but Sergio Escudero will be familiar to watchers of the Asian Champions’ League after spending the last three years with competition regulars FC Seoul. Although he is of Argentinian parentage, Escudero is a Japanese citizen and so counts as Sainty’s Asian player.
As already alluded to, Sammir has the potential to be one of the stand out players in the entire league, while the only survivor from 2014 is lofty centre back Eleilson. The big Brazilian is a little slow, but is renowned for his aerial prowess and even had a stint up front in last year’s CFA Cup final (perhaps Louis van Gaal was watching). However, the popular defender sustained a suspected ruptured knee ligament in the second game of the season and faces a lenghty spell on the sidelines.
The Star: Based on his second half performance against Shanghai SIPG, Sammir looks as though he can comfortably control games in this league and could have a major impact on Sainty’s season. However, there are plenty of domestic stars who could also share the limelight and midfielder Wu Xi has the potential to really step up this season.
After starting his career as a right back, the former Shenhua man has converted into a dynamic box-to-box midfielder who looked to be Sainty’s stand out player last year, while cementing his reputation on the international stage at the Asian Cup. The only thing that might hold the 26-year-old back in 2015 is being overshadowed by his Croatian counterpart.
The Youngster: At just 21, centre back Li Ang had a meteoric rise in 2014 and has the potential to shine this season. After being acquired from Jiangsu Youth, the local boy made his debut at the age of 20 in 2014’s season opener and went on to start 27 league games for the club. He represented the Under-22s at last Autumn’s Asian Games and broke into the the full national squad in time for the Asian Cup.
Li is a big strong player who is a little raw, but is not afraid to take responsibility and is able to physically match up with the Super League’s foreign forwards. If he continues on his current trajectory, he could be a regular in the China team for many years to come.
The X Factor: With a talented squad, tactics and player positioning will have a huge effect on Jiangsu’s season. There’s no doubt they have the players to improve on 2014, but does Gao have the nous to use them in the right way? It appears as though the 5-4-1 may be gone, but selecting the right players for the right roles will be key to a more successful 2015.
Should Ren Hang continue at left back or move to the centre of defence where he impressed for China at the Asian Cup? Should Ji Xiang continue at right back or reprise the James Milner style no-frills utility winger role he has recently filled for the national team? These are just some of the myriad options Gao has at his disposal and choosing the right ones will make a significant difference come November.
The Prediction: Despite all their internationals, Jiangsu have garnered relatively little attention in the build up to the 2015 season but they could spring a surprise or two. Guizhou Renhe and Tianjin TEDA, who finished directly above Sainty last year, look to be heading downhill, while only Shanghai Shenhua from last season’s bottom half have the potential to make an impact higher up the league.
With all the investment enjoyed by other teams over the summer, it’s hard to envisage Sainty securing a Champions’ League spot. While an unexpected top four finish is not out of the question, sixth and another decent cup run look like solid bets for the upcoming year.