Shandong Luneng’s 2015 Champions’ League campaign has already faltered drastically thanks to an emphatic 4-1 home defeat at the hands of Korean champions Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors.
After starting the competition with a thrilling 3-2 away win against Vietnamese side Bihn Duong last week, Luneng’s first home game of the tournament served as a timely reminder that they are still some distance from being able to compete with the continents’ elite. The scoreline was a little harsh on the Chinese side but they were consistently out-classed by a professional display which reinforces why Jeonbuk are one of the competition favourites.
ASIAN CHAMPIONS LEAGUE GROUP E
Shandong Luneng 1
Yang Xu 61′
Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors 4
Han Kyo-won 71′
Lee Jue-sang 74′
A sublime lob from Edu meant the visitors went in to the half-time break 1-0 to the good, but they were pegged back when Yang Xu scored his third goal in two games just after the hour mark. However, Luneng’s parity only lasted ten minutes before Han-Kyo-kwoon restored Jeonbuk’s lead by finishing off a fine team move.
Less than five minutes later, Lee-Jue-sang capitalised on a Wang Dalei error to send a piledriver into the Shandong net and any hopes of a late rally were dismissed when Yang Xu inexplicably earned himself a second yellow card for an absurd hand ball with ten minutes remaining. Luneng’s misery was compounded when Leonardo benefited from some very slack defending to sweep in a fourth in the final minute of injury time.
With the exception of one defensive change enforced by injury, Luneng Head Coach Cuca sent out the same line-up which started the second half in Vietnam, meaning that Yang Xu partnered Diego Tardelli up front in a 4-4-2. However, while that may have worked against weaker Southeast Asian opposition, it left the hosts very light in midfield which allowed the Koreans to hit them on the counter with little resistance.
Following a feisty start which saw Yang Xu booked after just two minutes for a heavy tackle, Jeonbuk looked increasingly threatening. Their first major opening came after 10 minutes when Edu effortlessly held off Dai Lin, before hooking wide from close range.
That ushered in a period in which Luneng were subjected to wave after wave of quick breaks with centre back Zhao Mingjian heroically thwarting Jeonbuk’s progress on more than one occasion. With holding midfielder Li Wei and right back Zhang Chi looking way off the pace, a Jeonbuk goal seemed inevitable and when it arrived it was in the most exquisite fashion.
After Luneng lost possession in midfield, Edu picked up the ball in the opposition half, ambled towards the penalty area and, under absolutely no duress from the opposing defense, nonchalantly lifted the ball over Wang Dalei from close to 25 yards out. It would be reasonable to criticise Wang’s positioning for the goal, but when one sees how perfectly close to the crossbar the former Liaoning Whowin forward placed his finish, that energy is better expended appreciating the Brazilian’s vision.
Jeonbuk showed less willingness to get forward after the goal and Luneng slowly came back into the game. In the 27th minute, Walter Montillo had the home side’s best opportunity of the half when he drove the ball straight at goalkeeper Kwon Sun-tae from close range after a surging dribble in from the wing. However, the Korean side still posed a threat when they sought to attack and Luneng looked vulnerable on at least two more occassions before the break.
During the interval, Cuca wisely hooked Li Wei who was replaced by winger Zhang Wenzhao. This led to Montillo moving into the middle and Junior Urso dropping back to shield the defense. The change seemed to have paid dividends as the hosts looked more solid defensively and more threatening going forward in the early stages of the second half. Unfortunately, for the second game running, Diego Tardelli remained largely anonymous and he injured his knee around the hour mark, prompting Cuca to replace him with winger Liu Binbin in a change that seemed logical regardless of the Brazilian’s knock.
Within two minutes of Tardelli’s withdrawal, Luneng were level. Zhang Wenzhao was able to get on the end of Montillo’s precise through ball and cut back to Yang Xu who demonstrated his finishing ability by firing across the goal in and in off the far post. The strike briefly put Luneng on the front foot and Montillo ought to have done better than blast the ball over from the edge of the area following a counter attack three minutes later.
This change in fortunes led Jeonbuk to make a double substitution which cooled Luneng’s momentum and led to a lull in the game. This was broken in the 71st minute when, seemingly out of nowhere, the visitors showed their quality by orchestrating a fantastic team goal. After the home side were dispossessed in their own half, the ball was worked to Edu whose delicate, first time chip was nodded across the box for Han Kyo-won to fire low past a slightly cumbersome Wang Dalei.
If the goalkeeper bore some degree of responsibility for the first two goals, he shouldered almost all of it for the third. Jeonbuk won a corner and Wang came through a crowd of bodies to attack Leonardo’s outswinger. Unfortunately, the international only managed to palm it weakly to Lee Jae-sang and the young midfielder used the space afforded him to line up an emphatic finish from just inside the area.
Luneng overcoming the two goal deficit looked like a tall order and their task was rendered impossible eleven minutes from time when they went down to ten men. The home side had a free kick which Montillo swung high into the box and, instead of letting the ball sail over his head, Yang Xu decided to swat it towards goal with his hand.
The striker’s Maradona impression was a poor one, however, as his effort only managed to hit the post and, more importantly, he got caught. A second yellow was inevitable, and both teams seemed to have settled for the 3-1 scoreline until second half substitute Leonardo added a fourth with practically the last kick of the game.
This defeat puts a serious dampener on Luneng’s hopes of progressing through the group stages. They now have one win and one loss, but Kashiwa Reysol’s 5-1 demolition of Bihn Duong puts that narrow opening victory into perspective and means that Luneng have sunk to third in their group – one point behind both Jeonbuk and Kashiwa.
Their next Champions’ League fixture sees them travel to Kashiwa in two weeks time to take on 2014’s fourth placed J-League side. Presuming Jeonbuk comfortably dispatch Bihn Duong on the same day, defeat would cut Luneng four points adrift and so the pressure will be on to leave Japan with at least a point.
Based on today’s performance, that will be easier said that done and is a task made even harder because Yang Xu, who has either scored or assisted all four of Luneng’s goals so far, will be unavailable due to suspension. Between now and then, the Jinan outfit have Super League games against Changchun Yatai and Liaoning Whowin and will need to use those fixtures to get things right in time for their trip to Japan. If they don’t, their 2015 Champions’ League campaign could effectively be over before the end of March.
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