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Pub Talk: Two experts discuss how Chinese football will be in 2015

And….we’re back! The Pub returns after a long lay off. Bcheng and Shanghai Ultra ruminate over all that was the close season – and a nice Asian Cup for China is belatedly discussed. Your pair look at how the league is going to unfurl this year – Evergrande and Guoan tipped to dominate again. At the bottom, bottomly predictions are made, and players to watch are fingered. A possibly resurgent Shenhua return to the Pub with Cahill, and elsewhere, Shanghai East Asia SIPG are also tipped to do well. That’s what’s happening in the pub today, leave your thoughts on the season below please.

Shanghai Ultra: Hello there, it’s been a long time. I hope the bar taps haven’t rusted shut.

BCheng: Hmm, now that you mention it the beer tasted a little off…we should drink a lot today to guarantee there will be new kegs for the rest of the season. It shouldn’t be a problem as we have plenty to discuss in the pub’s long awaited return.

S: Yeah, there is a lot. It’s a pity we missed the Asian Cup, but itself was on the case then. How was the off season been in general do you think?

B: Yes, for once China gave us something other than doom and gloom, it was a great run on the back of the 2014 season, which was equally wonderful, and now there’s plenty of reasons to believe this 2015 season will keep the momentum going and get more people talking about Chinese football.

S: I think so. It was almost two months ago but I was pretty impressed with China’s performances. I don’t think that is something I have said before. It really does set things up nicely, and keeps the game here on the general upward trend it’s been on for a while.

B: So let’s get right into it, Guangzhou Evergrande have dominated proceedings for far too long, it finally looks like they’ll have some serious challengers in 2015.

S: I want to agree with you, but I don’t see things turning out much different this year league-wise. Lippi leaving and Cannavaro having zero experience is good for reducing Evergrande’s effectiveness, but if last night’s result in the ACL is anything to go by, I fear they will be as strong as ever.

B: Evergrande made a lot of changes in the offseason, with two new foreigners coming in as their Italian contingent was ditched and the managerial change you talked about. It’s been so far so good for them, but then things have been going well for Guoan in the ACL as well.

S: Yes. To be honest, I think a lot of people are getting bored of Evergrande and I’m certainly one of them. Guoan’s result in the ACL last night was great against Suwon and that’s two wins out of two. To focus on the league though, my view is Evergrande will win it even more easily than last year, Guoan won’t be as strong, then it will be a toss-up between R&F, Shandong and Shanghai SIPG as to who gets an ACL place.

B: Well, you’ve identified all the contenders. I’d like to say you’re wrong about Guoan, I think the way they came on at the end of last season as well as their two ACL wins and the way those were achieved show that this is a team with a lot of mental strength, I’d like to say we’ll see a similar fight to the end like last year. None of the other three clubs you mentioned, all sure to be at the top of the table, seem to have the quality that will allow them the consistency to seriously mount a title challenge.

S: Predictions are always hard of course, but this year particularly so. Guoan really impressed me last year by pushing it right to the wire – I wrote them off and said they wouldn’t be able to do that – but they showed very impressive mental strength indeed. However, I just can’t see that happening again, your defence is not getting any younger, you picked up Jin Pengxiang from Aerbin but also lost Yu Yang – I don’t know if that makes for an improvement or not. Zhang Xizhe is of course no longer with you, however Yu Daobao was a big signing. To me overall Guoan look weaker squad wise, however I think you know your side a bit better.

B: To be honest the age of the defense is finally not a concern for me. Losing Yu wasn’t a big deal, he was never going to get a lot of playing time and they made two defensive pickups with an eye to the future. Manzano has plenty of good options if he wants to rest the two elder statesmen, Xu Yunlong and Zhou Ting. The loss of Zhang worries me a little more and is the biggest question mark going into the new season. Yu was a great replacement, but we’ll have to see how he does, he’s got a lot of pressure on him and is in a big club for the first time, but he has a lot of familiar faces alongside him, which could help.

S: Defence is often the one area where experience counts and older legs go a bit futher, we shall see. Guoan’s fortues this season after last year’s lung-bursting run is just one of the many intriguing sub-plots which will unfold this year. As for the other contenders, I’d like to say Shandong might be in with a shout, but I’m not sure Cuca is ever going to cut it there. Tardelli is a big signing, and I think probably a level up on Wagner Love.

B: Shandong is a difficult side to figure out, just looking at their ACL campaign, alarm bells are going off. If Cuca can get things together, they should be dangerous, but I think they are like the other real challenger, Shanghai SIPG, not quite ready to mount a title challenge.

S: I totally agree there. Something doesn’t seem to quite click with Shandong. If they can iron out whatever stopped them getting it together last year, they could go far. But I also don’t see them in the title picture. SIPG I think made come shrewd domestic purchases in the shape of Yu Hai and Shi Ke, not to mention a certain Mr Conca who made something of a shock (can we say that?) return. They have definitely levelled up on last year. But I heard on the grapevine things are shambolic in training.

B: Sven doesn’t strike me as the ideal manager for that side. They are headed in the right direction but really need a strong managerial presence to keep that bunch of kids in line and headed in the right direction.

S: I think so, he seems the exact opposite style-wise compared to Xu Genbao. They might take a while to get into a regular stride.

B: It’s a side with too many guys who’ve never been in that position before (unless you count their rise from League One) and I just don’t think they’ll have what it takes. Especially as I think a number of sides, yours included, have risen themselves up from the general malaise of mediocrity they previously were stuck in.

S: Yeah you’ve set me up with a typically smooth Pub-esque segue from one topic to another. Shenhua, dare I say it, appear to have their house in order. I was impressed by their sense of purpose moving early in the transfer window. I think Shenhua will be markedly improved and can break into the top 6 this year, but for ACL qualification, that will most likely be beyond them.

B: Everyone is focused on Tim Cahill, with good reason. The CSL is really about the quality of your foreigners, as long as you have decent parts around them, and Shenhua has a strong contingent of foreigners. I’m under impressed by their domestic pickups, but they should be better.

S: I have to agree wholeheartedly there. Shenhua’s domestic signings are frankly medicore and this is the main reason why I am not more optimistic. You’re right to say foreign squad members are key, however the domestic players have to be of a certain standard also, just look at Evergrande. Shenhua’s Chinese buys are all players who weren’t really wanted anywhere else. Yes I sympathize the club doesn’t think it’s worth splashing out on Chinese national team players, but I don’t believe they could not do better. And as usual, Shenhua have yet again disregarded squad balance, bringing in four midfielders to a squad with only two recognized centre-backs.

B: Not only that, but I think you brought in two guys over 30. The one slightly bright light would be Deng Zhuoxiang, if he can find his game again.

S: Yes, Wang Yun from Shenxin is almost 32. Really don’t see the point of that signing, Shenhua have ample experienced midfielders. Then again Xu Liang retired and Jiang Kun is completely past it. Deng played a lot of games last year after being injured for a long time previously. The club stressed they were going for practical purchases, but we saw our only two centre-backs go out, and only two come back in, in addition to zero-right backs. Anyway, yes Cahill can be everything Anelka could have been, he’s a shrewd acquisition. Again though, balance-wise, not exactly the kind of player Shenhua needed, but anyway, much improved, and the new coach Giliot appears to have full control over all footballing matters.

B: This could just be optimism, but I think the level of the mid table clubs is slightly improved over last year, there’s still a lot of mediocrity and we won’t see anything near consistency out of them, but they’ll be up for the games against the big sides and we’ll see some surprises.

S: Yeah there are signs to suggest there are improvements accross the board in the mid to lower reaches of where teams finished last season. Guizhou I have a feeling might struggle a bit this year. I definitely think this is going to be an interesting year, even if I’m being unimaginative in my championship prediction.

B: Guizhou is a shadow of their former selves, but I think they’ll probably avoid trouble. I think we may be looking at Shijiazhuang going right back down and possibly Henan joining them.

S: Yes, I think we are seeing a pattern emerging in recent years of at least one of the promoted teams going straight back down again. Henan will be at the wrong end of the table again, and Chongqing don’t look too clever either, indeed there was doubt they would even take part in the CSL this year, thankfully it appears they are.

B: Yes, I think we’ll see the same sides we’re used to, along with those three, probably Shenxin (to your delight), will be amongst those fighting to stay up.

S: Shenxin will no doubt worm their way from the bottom two once again, however they look weaker having lost Wang Yun, this Eduardo Brazilian fellow looks interesting, no idea how he rates to Utaka who had a hand in keeping Shenxin at the end of last year.

B: It’s always hard to know what to expect with these Brazilians (or foreign players in general).

S: It is, that makes things tricker to predict overall, and this season is no different. Do you have a candidate for a dark horse team this year?

B: I think it’s easier to pick a dark horse to go down (for me it would be Tianjin), because other than Evergrande and Beijing, nobody has a shot at the title and there are no other sides than those we mentioned who can get into the ACL, I think Hangzhou is going to be surprising this year, but that will only mean a top half finish to me.

S: I’m very much unable to predict much near the bottom. Hangzhou is an interesting choice, as is their new coach Troussier, who got Shenzhen relegated and failed to get them back up again in three seasons of trying.

B: yeah, its a bit out of left field, but again, “dark horse” is a relative expression when talking about the CSL.

S: It is, and I’m not disagreeing with you on Hangzhou. Changchun also made some interesting buys, but I don’t see enough to predict things would be much different down the bottom 4 or 5 compared to last year

B: Well, that’s a lot of beer considering we’ve been away too long.

S: Hic.

B: Until next time, here’s to a good season.

S: Indeed, cheers everyone.

UK trained journalist and long-time Chinese football observer Cameron Wilson has been writing about Chinese football for over a decade...

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