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Straight Outta Canton: Evergrande winning with the handbrake on thanks to Goulart

Guangzhou Evergrande’s season is now five games old—glossing over February’s half-hearted effort at a Super Cup—and the Canton Tigers continue to boast a 100 percent record in 2015. In truth, they have yet to really be tested.

Two league outings and a further three in the AFC Champions League have brought wins and goals, but not complete performances. There is still a sense of early season rustiness to all of the club’s play and, thus far, they are unable to release the handbrake holding them back.

While rivals Guoan look a well-oiled machine, Evergrande have begun the campaign in the manner of an angst-ridden teenager rising from their slumber a Monday morning. Football is being played and results are good, but no part of the team is functioning quite as it should.

Manager Fabio Cannavaro, though, will be unperturbed by his side’s failings. They are conceding too many goals and have yet to find the rhythm they require in their attacking play, but they are beating every opponent in their path.

“As long as we are winning the game, it means we scored more goals than our opponents,” Cannavaro told the media following his side’s 4-3 victory over Kashima Antlers in the Champions League this week.

“Football is a difficult sport and if you want us to beat the other team by four or give more goals in every game, then you are being unrealistic.”

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Dapper: Fabio Cannavaro has appeared at ease in Guangzhou

 

Unrealistic it may be to expect comfort week after week, but the Italian will also accept his side are not at their best—or even anywhere near that level. As a former centre-back of outstanding quality himself, Evergrande’s defensive concerns will doubtless be a preoccupation of the Italian in these early days.

Yet, for all those woes, they are beating sides of quite some repute.

2013 Champions League runners-up FC Seoul, 2014 Champions League winners Western Sydney Wanderers and Japanese heavyweights Antlers have all tried and failed to derail the Evergrande juggernaut. In fact, all have been rather nonchalantly swatted aside by a side reluctant to cut loose and run through the gears.

Indeed, the biggest test of Cannavaro’s side thus far came in the unlikely form of Shijiazhuang Yongchang on the opening day of the CSL season. A final minute winner from Yu Hanchao—something fast becoming a speciality—spared their blushes.

As impressive as the Shijiazhuang defensive had been, however, there was always a nagging sense a goal was coming. This is a side that have developed a skill akin to Manchester United’s consistent ability to score late under Sir Alex Ferguson throughout the 1990s and 2000s. They clearly believe they can win any match from any situation.

That said, had it not been for €15 million signing Ricardo Goulart the season may have taken on a rather different early complexion. Top-scorer in the Champions League at this early stage with six goals, part of an overall tally of eight in five appearances since arriving in China, the Brazilian attacking midfielder is proving somewhat of a sensation.

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Crucial: Evergrande must get Elkeson firing again in 2015

Shenhua’s Paulo Henrique and Guoan’s Dejan Damjanovic have been early rivals for column inches in 2015, but Goulart keeps coming up with match-winning contributions to keep himself amongst the headlines. His partnership with Elkeson and Gao Lin in attack is yet to ignite in general play, but Goulart has an eye for goal that is proving deadly.

“Goulart is undoubtedly a great player. As an individual player or as a team player he is helping us significantly,” Cannavaro ventured on Wednesday.

“He is new here and it is not an easy situation for him. But so far he is doing great and I hope he can keep it up. Evergrande spent a lot to bring him in and today he proved that he’s worth it, and we made a good deal.”

Given his significant transfer fee, there will doubtless be some relieved faces in the Evergrande boardroom following the disappointing showings of both Alessandro Diamanti and Alberto Gilardino while on sizeable wages last season.

Having wrestled back transfer control from former head coach Marcello Lippi, the club appear to have their recruitment in order once more.

Cannavaro’s early days have not been easy, faced with his own well-publicised personal problems at home and the early departure of mentor Lippi. Yet, with Il Mister out of the picture, he is now free to be his own manager.

Significant injuries to goalkeeper Zeng Cheng—whose replacement Li Shuai contributed to two of Antlers’ goals on Wednesday—as well as star defender Zhang Linpeng and recent signing Alan have also been an inhibiting factor. Cannavaro, to his credit, has not bemoaned his luck and, instead, trusted his more than serviceable squad to perform. They have not let him down.

Based on coming fixtures—Changchun, Henan, Antlers away, Liaoning and Hangzhou—Evergrande’s is a winning streak which could continue for some time. If there was ever a run of fixtures for Cannavaro to allow his side time to get up to speed with his ideas, he would have struggled to handpick any better.

What is becoming clear at this early stage of the season is that the CSL is greatly improved in 2015, with many more sides capable of taking points off any in the league. Each win, therefore, is invaluable and both Guoan and Evergrande—last season’s top two—appear best equipped to keep the points rolling in.

Whether it is a two-horse race or more this season matters little at this point. These early stages are a time for gelling as a team whilst ensuring a platform is laid for a strong title challenge by picking up every available point.

In those respects, Cannavaro could not have wished for a better start but it is now time for his side to begin to move through the gears as the season develops. Evergrande aspire to be Asia’s best once more, investing heavily in elite talent over the off-season. They must now prove as much.

This is a side who have shown that they can win repeatedly while below their best, a further demonstration of their champion pedigree. The entirety of Asian football, though, is waiting to see Evergrande cut loose to gauge just how dangerous a prospect they can be.

Just how good they can be this season, nobody yet seems quite sure. For now, they are providing more questions than answers.

Based in Guangzhou, Christopher covers Chinese football for a range of media outlets worldwide and is Wild East Football’s lead editor for news content.
 
His work can regularly be seen on ESPN FC, Bleacher Report and Hupu amongst other media outlets, while he has interviewed a number of leading figures in Chinese football.

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