Ahead of this weekend’s opening of the 2015 Chinese Super League season, the Straight Outta Canton column previews the chances of reigning champions and title favourites Guangzhou Evergrande Taobao FC.
The Manager: Fabio Cannavaro
In his first management role, Italian World Cup-winning captain Cannavaro is the man charged with continuing the Evergrande success story for the foreseeable future.
Thus far, reports out of Guangzhou are positive and the side’s players are clearly in awe of the career of the former Juventus and Real Madrid icon.
Away from the training field, however, all has not been quite so smooth with legal proceedings and the threat of a jail sentence in his native Italy an unwanted distraction so early in his coaching career.
The story of Guangzhou FC since their takeover by the Evergrande Real Estate Group in 2010 is well-known but, for the purposes of this preview, bears repeating. From the turmoil of a match-fixing scandal, Evergrande brought the club out of the second tier to claim four consecutive CSL titles and the 2013 AFC Champions League.
The turning point from local force to Asian powerhouse came under the guidance of manager Marcello Lippi who came to the helm at the Tianti midway through 2012. They are now universally regarded as one of the continent’s leading lights, born out by a 50 percent sale of the club to retail giants Alibaba in June 2014 for a reported 1.2 billion yuan (£120 million).
A new chapter now begins under the management of Cannavaro but with a wave of investment across the league off the back of their success, the home front is becoming an increasingly competitive environment.
Stadium: Tianhe Sports Centre Stadium
There’s not much to say about the Tianhe Stadium or “Tianti” as it is known in Chinese, with the city government-owned concrete bowl a fairly nondescript and soulless arena.
However, what does go in the Tianti’s favour is the regular CSL-leading attendances that ensure that nearly every match is occupied by in the region of 40,000 fans (often more, unofficially).
While Evergrande’s fans may lack the history of their rivals from Guoan and Shenhua, they are numerous and vocal in their chanting—albeit they could do with developing a less monotonous songbook.
Based in the heart of the city, the ground is ideally located and tickets are easily purchased around the stadium in the days ahead of all but a few big games. On such occasions, the atmosphere can be electric both in the stadium and around the city as a whole.
China’s best team for the past four years, there is little to say about the Evergrande side that even casual observers of the league will not be familiar with.
They boast a squad packed with foreign stars and China internationals, with even their bench occupied by the likes of Mei Fang, Yu Hanchao, Gao Lin, Li Xuepeng, Zheng Long, Zhang Jiaqi and Liu Jian—all China internationals hand-picked from other CSL sides over the past five years.
The club look set to play a 4-3-3/4-2-3-1 system this campaign, with Elkeson, Alan and Ricardo Goulart in an attacking trio when all are fit and available.
Captain Zheng Zhi will continue to marshall the midfield with support from Huang Bowen and/or Rene Junior, while Zhang Linpeng, Feng Xiaoting, Kim Young-Gwon and goalkeeper Zeng Cheng will all be regulars in defensive positions.
Even under new management, Evergrande will be a familiar force in 2015.
Considerable by Evergrande’s standards, but given the continuity to the core of the side over recent seasons, they are well placed to adapt.
As stated, Cannavaro takes over as manager from compatriot Lippi, while fellow Italians Alessandro Diamanti and Alberto Gilardino also headed for the exit door. In their place, over €25 million has been spent recruiting Brazilian talents Alan and Ricardo Goulart. The changes have been greatly appreciated among the club’s support.
On the Chinese side of things, it has been a case of continued slow renovation of a well-established squad. Left-back Zou Zheng has arrived from Qingdao Jonoon following the departure of veteran Sun Xiang, while former Le Mans and Dalian Aerbin defensive midfielder Zhang Jiaqi joins to strengthen the midfield.
On the final day of the window, Evergrande also announced the shock arrival of 21-year-old attacking midfielder Wang Shangyuan from Club Brugge. With all three arrivals under the age of 25 and departees Qin Sheng, Feng Junyan and Sun Xiang all in the latter stages of their careers, all moves have been made with one eye on the long-term.
Following the disappointing displays of Lippi-recommended signings Gilardino and Diamanti last campaign, Evergrande opted to ditch their twin Italians and replace them with youthful recruits from their more traditional hunting ground of Brazil.
Current Brazil international Ricardo Goulart was the club’s most expensive off-season recruit, joining from Brazilian side Cruzeiro after consecutive league titles. Charged with offering a creative presence in attack from the flank, Goulart has begun his Evergrande career in style with four goals in two ACL appearances.
Joining him is compatriot Alan, fresh from 35 league goals in the past 18 months at Austrian champions Red Bull Salzburg. With an equally outstanding goalscoring record eight Europa League goals in five appearances this campaign, his principle task will be to inject Evergrande’s often lethargic attack with renewed pace. It is little surprise he is already being billed as the “new Muriqui” in local media.
Box-to-box midfielder Rene Junior will continue to play the role of “fifth foreign player”, adding mobility in the centre of the park. In games when Evergrande have needed players to break beyond defensive lines to disrupt stubborn defences, he has proved essential to the side and chipped in with a number of crucial goals last campaign.
The foreign player contingent is completed by Korean defensive star Kim Young-Gwon who returns for another season and Elkeson, the side’s principle and most reliable goal-threat.
The Star: Elkeson
What is there to say about a forward who has finished as top-scorer in the CSL in both seasons he has played in China? Scoring at over a goal per game, the Brazilian has smashed scoring records despite playing in a variety of attacking positions over that time period.
So successful has Elkeson been that there have been calls for his inclusion in the Brazil national side despite playing in a league so off the traditional radar. Having arrived from Botafogo with the tag of promising, he was the focus of a bid of over €15 million from an Emirati club last summer which was promptly rejected.
Elkeson will once more bear the burden of responsibility with regards to leading the attack this campaign and will need to maintain the form which earned him a new four-year mega contract over the off-season if Evergrande are to continue their run of consecutive league titles.
Based on his history in Chinese football, it would be a mistake to bet against him—particularly given Evergrande’s newly strengthened attacking options.
The Youngster: Wang Shangyuan
Evergrande have a handful of younger players in their squad, albeit that China Under-23 internationals Hu Weiwei and Yang Chaosheng have departed on loan over the off-season.
Cantonese midfielder Liao Lisheng will hope to build on the progress of last season, as will Liu Haidong, but it is 21-year-old signing Wang Shangyuan who is perhaps the squad’s standout young player.
Evergrande’s squad has decent attacking resources in the shape of their foreign stars, Gao Lin, Yu Hanchao and Zheng Long. However, the latter was previously the only natural central attacking midfielder in the club’s ranks.
It is with this in mind that the technically-gifted youngster has been recruited from Belgian side Club Brugge, where opportunities became limited following a change in management early last season.
It was a shock capture on the final day of the window, but one which maintains their depth of Chinese talent.
The X Factor: “The trident”
When Evergrande conquered all before them in 2013, the attacking trio of Dario Conca, Muriqui and Elkeson were affectionately christened “the trident” in Chinese media. Just over a year on and the monicker is back following a transfer window of lavish expenditure.
Once more Elkeson is at the point of Evergrande’s trio of attacking superstars but it is now compatriots Alan and Ricardo Goulart who offer assistance. It is Asian football’s premier attacking unit and will be expected to step up to the plate as their predecessors did when it counts most this season.
On paper there is no reason why they won’t and initial signs have been good, with Goulart and Alan combining for the former’s first goal for the club on debut. The real test will be when the big games begin to stack up later in the season.
The Prediction: Champions
There is really only one target when it comes to Guangzhou Evergrande and that is a fifth consecutive league title.
Lippi achieved three of those successes and a Champions League title in his time in Guangzhou and Cannavaro will be judged mercilessly if he fails to continue the club’s tradition of title wins.
The league is a minimum, but the Champions League is where the season will truly be judged.