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Pub Talk: The ACL is no hell and in the pub are wedding bells

Things are rosy and happy in the pub this week – the CSL has made a bright opening, Chinese clubs are doing well in the ACL, and Mr Ultra has gotten married – will he be able to come back to the pub at will, now he’s fallen under the influence of infamously hen-pecking Shanghaiese women? Meanwhile, while they still can, your dynamic duo discuss all the Chinese football business this week – Shandong struggling again – can they withstand the pressure? Guoan’s progress is discussed and how invincible are Evergrande this year? The questions are many, the answers hitting the spot in a round about way. Also in the pub is a look ahead to upcoming derbies in the coming weeks, and Japanese drinkers also make an appearance – what could that be about? As usual, all the previews and views of the coming games on the agenda, leave your thoughts at the bar. The drinks are on Mr Ultra (just don’t tell his new wife).

B: Mate, once again it’s pub time, another packed week with CSL and ACL matches to discuss and Shenhua topping the table.

S: Yes, hello there my friend, it’s good to be back, there’s indeed a lot going on, let’s start with whatever topic you think is worthy.

B: Well, there was a real shootout at Tianhe last night, Guangzhou Evergrande ultimately eked out a win in a high scoring affair, exciting stuff and Goulart looks the business.

S: It was a great game, 4-3, totally agree Goulart, I’m looking forward to seeing him at Hongkou.

B: Nobody would say Evergrande are struggling, having won all three ACL matches and both their league matches, but it’s not been easy for them. They needed a last second goal against Shijiazhuang and Chongqing kept things close last weekend as well.

S: I’m surprised indeed by their relative difficulty in the CSL, two very laboured performances against the two new promoted teams, performances which are in contrast to their more impressive shows in the ACL. Nevertheless, Evergrande keep on winning, regardless of how.

B: Even in the ACL, their wins have all been by a one goal margin, I wonder if part of the issue is down to injuries, in particular not having Zeng Cheng in the net.

S: Yeah it’s been a while since Li Shuai got a run out, although I’m not sure the defensive errors are coming from one particular spot. I just think Evergrande are very astute in the transfer market, they don’t let anyone Chinese go who isn’t past their best, and they buy the best foreign talent willing to come to China, this season they have regenerated again and left their old skin behind, like giant lizards.

B: Yes, though I think they’ve already stocked themselves when it comes to domestic talent, this season was unusual in that they focused on bringing in younger players for the most part. They are a strong team but injuries might be one of the things keeping them from the big results. That said, I know Beijing Guoan have a rash of injuries as well, perhaps it has something to do with fitness levels that they are so many early season injuires.

S: Guoan’s result was equally impressive, another victory, this time against Urawa Reds, a team traditionally strong on the continent.

B: Yes, Guoan is on a real roll, they’re undefeated since August and the only draw since then was on the last day of the season against Henan. Manzano has had to deal with a lot of injuries, but he seems to have really figured out the CSL.

S: Guoan really do appear to have started from where they left off last season. Solid results all round, impressive in the ACL. I caught the second half of the game against Urawa. The Japanese had an excellent chance to take the lead early on, but it was pretty much one-way traffic after that, Guoan deserved winners there.

B: Yes, I must say there’s very little for Guoan fans to be unhappy about, the team is designed well and they just keep finding ways to win. Again, much credit to Manzano, its a very different situation in Shandong, where Cuca, who came in at the same time, is once again struggling.

S: Yeah Shandong appear to be stuck in third gear. They are starting this season off in the exact same fashion as last season – sluggishly, and heading out of the ACL in a hurry. Are Cuca’s days numbered?

B: That’s a good question. As you said, they struggled a lot at the start of last season, but Cuca seemed to get more comfortable as the season went on and got them to fourth place as well as winning the CFA Cup, which probably saved his job. However, so far it looks like all those improvements were a wash and things are back where they were. The club also is in a weird position, their only transfer move was spending a lot to bring in Diego Tardelli. They have a pretty good side, but they just keep struggling. I don’t think they’ll be as patient with Cuca this season, if things don’t get righted soon, I think he’ll be gone.

S: Yeah I think if things aren’t on track by the summer, surely he’ll be off. Tardelli was a big signing, but a direct replacement for Wagner Love. Only time will tell if he is any better, Love scored a lot of important goals for them last season.

B: They didn’t lose any star domestic players in the offseason, but there was a pretty big exodus and they didn’t bring anyone in. They have some room to make a move in the summer, especially considering they didn’t fill their asian player spot, but I can see things going downhill pretty quickly for them.

S: Shandong definitely have the potential to be a very serious player this year, and you’re right they do have room for manouvre if things don’t work in the first half of the season. But somehow I can’t see them being much better than last season.

B: Last year they finished fourth, not too shabby. There is some new competition this season, SIPG definitely looks like they will be a contender for an Asian spot.

S: With Conca in the team definitely, they’ve also started with two wins out of two, they made short work of Shenxin in what I don’t want to describe as a Shanghai derby.

B: This weekend Sven travels back to Guangzhou in what should be the tastiest clash on the schedule.

S: Yeah that fixture jumps out for sure. R&F, difficult to call them this year. They haven’t made a great start this year. Losing Sven probably not a good thing for them I don’t think.

B: They are still a talented side, but I think the new manager needs to gain his footing. They’re ACL run has been a mixed bag and though things were close, losing to Shenhua last week at home was tough.

S: It was, I certainly didn’t expect Shenhua to win that game. I’d like to offer more insights into it, as I was in a bar in Shanghai with many friends watching the game, however, a lot of beers were downed, as I was getting married the following day. My recollection of the game is a bit foggy.

B: Haha, I don’t think anyone can blame you for that. Of course, congratulations are definitely in order. I had my own rough night, except it was vodka with Urawa fans on Tuesday night

S: Thank you for that, and Shenhua’s result was a fitting start to a memorable weekend. As for Urawa, a group of their fans are regular visitors in Shanghai and I know only two well what kind of night you had if you drank with them after the game.

B: We talked a little about Shandong, it will be interesting to see how they bounce back from a series of losses, they don’t have it easy, taking on Jiangsu this weekend.

S: Tough match there, again though its early days so hard to predict much, Jiangsu are very strong on the domestic player front, indeed second only to Evergrande in terms of national team callups. Their foreign contingent is relatively modest though, and they just lost their stalwart defender Eleílson who is out with what seems like a long term injury, so, will be interesting to see how they cope.

B: That’s another one of these early season injuries that seem to have struck clubs.

S: Yeah, there’s been a few. I noticed Sainty were considering replacing Eleílson during the summer break since it looks like he’s out past that. Seems harsh to replace players due to injury like that.

B: That’s China, or just pro football. You’re right about the early days thing, that’s why I think a matchup like this one or SIPG-R&F will be interesting, helps get a read on some of these sides.

S: Yeah. I’m interested to see how Liaoning get on at Shijiazhuang, Liaoning have two wins out of two and Shijiazhuang looked much better than expected against Evergrande. Perhaps the start of the season is good because it makes these ties more interesting than they would be otherwise.

B: Yes, Liaoning came up with a shock victory last week against Shandong, thanks to a last minute extra time goal, a big win for a team that looks decent enough. They should avoid drop concerns, but they are seriously lacking in depth, a few injuries would sink them.

S: Yeah I don’t imagine they will be awfully far from the bottom this year. For me I’m also eager to see if Shenhua can continue their good start of the season against Tianjin, although I’m annoyed that this game has been moved from a Saturday to a Sunday night, not sure why that’s necessary at all, given it will be 9 days after Shenhua’s last match.

B: I’d be disappointed if Shenhua can’t come away with a win, especially considering its at home. I don’t rate Tianjin, it wouldn’t surprise me if they are involved in the relegation race.

S: Yeah another team I think we can safely predict will not trouble the top half of the table, although Arie Hann is always good value for some kind of colour. Shenhua have made a great start, the win against R&F was deserved I think, for the first time in ages everyone will be turning up to Hongkou expecting a win. I don’t see why not.

B: Yeah, I think seeing your side top of the table has led to a bit of deserved confidence, we aren’t that far from a derby coming up.

S: As Steve wrote in his North Terrace news the other week, Shenhua fans can be forgiven for basking in the relative glory whilst it lasts. The Shanghai derby I think is barely two months away, I can tell you the local media have been writing about it since before the season began, with SIPG also in winning form, I think it’s a game everyone is looking forward to. Personally I’m absolutely electrified by the prospect.

B: I was thinking more about the coming clash in the capital in two weeks time.

S: Yeah I was wondering perhaps it was a bit far in advance to be looking at the Shanghai derby. Nevertheless, whats the word in Beijing?

B: There’s still a high after the Urawa match, like a lot of fans in China, many in my section had their formative years in the early 2000s, when Urawa was dominating Asia and their supporter base was huge, regularly delivering impressive tiff displays. Many were excited to finally face off against them and winning made it all the better. Obviously the derby will be all the more interesting if both sides remain undefeated but I think there will be a little more apprehension about the match than Shenhua’s previous trips to the capital.

S: Right, that’s interesting about Urawa, it’s similar in Shanghai, Urawa and Shenhua have a long-standing special relationship, at least between the Lanmo top guys and some of the Urawa guys, I’ve drank with them all on several occasions, seeing Japananese and Chinese guys drinking happily together is what football is all about. For the China derby, yet again predictions are difficult, Shenhua have certainly upped their game and squad quality and the chances of an even and entertaining match are higher than they have been for a number of years. That said, Shenhua at Gongti is seldom a happy time for anyone Shanghainese.

B: We have plenty of time to talk about it, but I’d be very disappointed if Guoan didn’t win it with ease.

S: I think this topic will certainly feature in the pub at least once in the near future.

B: Most definitely.

S: Well, is it time to drink up?

B: I think we can finish on that note.

S: Yes – cheers to you and cheers to all for the footballing weekend ahead!

B: Cheers mate, and cheers again for joining the ranks of the married.

S: Ha ha – thank you very much indeed B! Until next time.

A leading international commentator on Chinese football frequently quoted by the world's top media. Offers piercing and resolutely honest insights into the bustling crossroads where football, society, economics and politics meet in contemporary China. Based in Shanghai since 2005, observer of the Chinese game since 2000.

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