Last year’s biggest under-achievers were undoubtedly free-spending Shandong Luneng, who completely failed to make a dent in the championship and bowed out early from the ACL. Jamie McIlroy looks at the Jinan side’s chances of pulling up their socks up this year.
The Manager: Brazilian Cuca arrived in Jinan after the 2013 season fresh from guiding Atletico Mineiro to victory in the Copa Libetadores. Winning South America’s premier club competition was easily the 51-year-old’s greatest achievement during a fifteen year career at various Brazilian clubs and, accordingly, big things were expected of him when he took over a Luneng side that had just finished Super League runners-up to Guangzhou Evergrande under the stewardship of Radomir Antic.
Unfortunately, 2014 didn’t really go according to plan as Shandong had a poor start to the year and there were strong calls for Cuca to lose his job, prompting some players to intentionally run over to their beleaguered manager after scoring in order to show their support for him. Luneng slowly turned things around, but were still eliminated from the Champions’ League at the group stage and only scraped fourth place in the Super League courtesy of Shanghai SIPG’s late season collapse.
Cuca’s debut season was saved from being an utter failure by Ryan McGowan’s last minute goal in the CFA Cup final second leg which gave Luneng the trophy and secured the team Champions’ League football for 2015. However, Shandong will be expected to do better this year and the pressure will really be on Cuca to show signs of progress following last year’s regression
History: With the ancient game of cuju apparently originating in Zibo, Shandong, FIFA has officially recognised the city as the birthplace of football. So it is, perhaps, unsurprising that the province also has long standing traditions in the modern Chinese game.
The club has existed in one form or another since 1957 and was a founder member of the fully professional Jia A league set up in 1994. The team has not been relegated in the professional era and has maintained the Luneng name since 1997 – making it practically ancient by Super League standards. The team’s four league title’s make it the joint second most successful in professional history, while last year’s CFA Cup win was their fifth, and consolidated their position as the competition’s winningest side.
Stadium: Luneng play their home matches at the Jinan Olympic Sports Centre Stadium which is conveniently located near the middle of the city. It holds close to 57,000 people and, while it’s rarely full, the team boasts a fanatical fanbase which travels very well and gave the side an average attendance of over 23,000 last season.
The Team: Whichever way you slice it, last season was a disappointment and the team will have to do better in 2015. In terms of depth, the squad is only really bettered by Evergrande, but you can only have eleven players on the field at once. Like most Super League teams, Luneng turn out in a 4-2-3-1 and it is important that the right players step up at the right times in order for them to improve on their performance in 2014.
The Changes: Their has been a minimal amount of upheaval in Jinan this winter with the club focusing on quality over quantity. That quality comes in the shape of Diego Tardelli who arrives from Atletico Mineiro where he won the Copa Libetadores under Cuca in 2013. At €5.5 million, the striker is a big signing by Super League standards (Evergrande excepted) but, as a player who scored two goals for Brazil against Argentina as recently as last October, Luneng will be hoping he is well worth the money.
To make space for Tardelli, the popular Vagner Love has been moved on after scoring 22 goals last season in all competitions, including a CFA Cup final hat-trick. Another hero of that cup final victory, Ryan McGowan, has also left the club and the Australian is yet to be replaced by another Asian player.
Domestically, changes have also been slight. As is customary for Luneng, several players have been sent out on loan, while veterans Du Wei and Lv Zheng leave the club on a permanent basis.
There have been no domestic signings as such, but it is worth noting that Yang Xu has returned to the squad after spending the second half of last season on loan with Changchun Yatai. Yang, who was in the Asian Cup squad that went to Australia, made an immediate impact on his return to the team in Luneng’s Champions’ League opener against Vietnamese side Bihn Duong and his aerial prowess may offer the team a different type of goal threat should he be used more regularly in 2015.
The Foreigners: Obviously, all eyes will be on Tardelli to see if he can live up to the hype his price tag and reputation brings, but Luneng already have a pretty healthy foreign contingent in place. Walter Montillo is a diminutive Argentine play maker who normally takes the number 10 role and has already demonstrated his creative abilities this season in the aforementioned Champions’ League game.
Junior Urso is a box-to-box Brazilian midfielder who drives the team forward and is also capable of chipping in with a few goals. Finally, his compatriot Aloisio is a stocky forward, bordering on the portly, who, though inconsistent at times, managed ten league goals last season. Of the four South Americans. Aloisio will generally play the role of the “reserve foreigner” as he did last season and so has not been included in the Champions’ League squad.
The Star: In international terms, Tardelli is by far the team’s most famous player, but goalkeeper Wang Dalei is a star in anybody’s definition of the term. The team captain, Wang signed before last season after a fantastic year with Shanghai Shenhua. The-26-year-old kept up that outstanding form throughout 2014 and even got an assist for the dramatic goal that won Luneng the CFA Cup.
At last month’s Asian Cup, a string of wonderful saves made him China’s player of the tournament and his crucial penalty save in the opener against Saudi Arabia saw him become something of a national hero. Not only is Wang China’s best goalkeeper, but he’s a true leader and a hugely galvanising presence in the team.
The Youngster: Shandong’s vaunted youth system means there is no end of choice here, but it’s hard to look past 21-year-old Liu Binbin. The winger had a break through year in 2014 in which he became a regular in the starting line-up while terrorising full backs with his lightning pace. Liu was named ‘s young player of the year in 2014 and was even called up to the full China national squad in time for the Asian Cup.
The X Factor: With the players they have at their disposal, it’s hard to place a finger on why Shandong had such a relatively poor year last year. Early indications suggest the starting line-up will be largely the same as last season’s and so an X factor should be someone that offer’s something different.
Therefore, it makes sense to suggest that Yang Xu could be this season’s variable. He was clearly unfancied by Cuca last year, but has come back into the fold in time for 2015. He’s unlikely to start every game but against certain opposition, or as a substitute, he offers Luneng a more direct route to goal that gives them a very workable plan B.
The Prediction: A year into his reign, and with a largely unchanged team full of talented players that should be used to his methods, Cuca should be presiding over a greatly improved team this year. The major issue facing Luneng is that last season’s closest rivals, Guangzhou R&F and Shanghai SIPG, have also strengthened, making it truly difficult to predict the Jinan outfit’s final position.
They remain very unlikely to make a run at the title this year but could usurp Guo’an, meaning a placing anywhere between 2nd and 5th is feasible. It really is tough to call and that’s what makes this season’s Super League a compelling one.