Following an impressive 2014 CSL campaign containing some dynamic attacking performances, a number of remarkable results and the emergence of a legitimate Shanghai derby, Shanghai’s highest placed team – the recently rebranded SIPG FC – go into this year’s campaign with expectations at an all-time high. Can the reds live up to the hype in 2015? Andy Strong takes a closer look at the side tipped to go toe-to-toe with champions Guangzhou Evergrande in this year’s title race.
The Manager: Since owner and chairman Xu Genbao made the decision to step down from the role at the close of the 2014 CSL season, wholesale changes have been brought about at the club, not least within the management structure. Although Xi Zhikang occupied the head coach position last year, it was in fact chairman Xu who managed the day to day running of the club, including heading up training sessions.
However, along with his decision to step aside came the arrival of ex-England national team coach, Sven-Göran Eriksson from league rivals Guangzhou R&F. The decision to lure the coach north was a shrewd one on behalf of SIPG – not simply a marquee name in international football spearheading a new project in which money is seemingly no object, but also the very man who helped R&F trump both East Asia and Shandong Luneng in a hard-fought battle for the CSL’s final Champions League position.
In fact one of Sven’s first moves as SIPG manager was to bring his midfield talisman, 30 year old Brazilian, Davi, up to Shanghai with him from Yuexiushan. This will no doubt have been a huge blow to R&F, and given the money made available to the new boss, it seems as though Eriksson might have one less team to worry about at the top of the table.
The History: Founded as Shanghai East Asia in 2005, as the students of Shanghai’s Genbao Football Base sought to test themselves at a higher level, the club soon began scaling the ranks of Chinese professional football. Within just 7 years, and utilising a squad consisting primarily of Genbao Base graduates, the side had reached the top tier of Chinese football. After finishing 9th in their debut season in 2013, East Asia surprised many to produce a run of form which saw them competing for a top three finish all the way to the final stages of the season, eventually finishing 5th.
As the season drew to a close, attentions began to focus on what lay ahead for the club, with chairman Xu Genbao looking to step aside so as to allow chief sponsors, Shanghai International Port Group, to take control of the club. With Xu afforded an advisory role on the board, SIPG secretary Jiang Haitao filled the top seat and the club rebranding and squad rebuilding commenced. Despite the side losing it’s East Asia identity, the new owners retained the club logo, colours, and even playing kit, much to the satisfaction of the ever-expanding fan base.
The Team: With the domestic playing staff predominantly comprising graduates of the Genbao Football Base, the squad – unlike many others in the division – have the benefit of having grown up alongside each other. Playing together for over 10 years has allowed this group to develop a deep-rooted understanding which visibly manifests itself on the pitch.
Nonetheless, with an average age of just 22 amongst the Chinese contingent last year, the lack of established CSL performers was understandably the team’s Achilles heel. In a side which all too often looked dynamic and incisive going forward, but positionally and tactically naive at the back, an experienced head or two across the back four could prove vital to making the step up to title challengers.
The Stadium: Possessing a capacity of 80,000, Shanghai Stadium is an impressive venue and matchdays – despite rarely threatening to attract even a quarter of it’s total capacity – are always a noisy and vibrant affair. Located in the built-up downtown area of Xujiahui, for many expats and local fans alike, Shanghai Stadium offers a much more convenient alternative to the more remote Hongkou Football Stadium, home to rivals Shanghai Shenhua.
The Changes: As previously mentioned, the first major change took effect almost as soon as the 2014 season finished, with the entire management team brought in from Guangzhou R&F. Alongside head coach Sven-Göran Eriksson came his assistants, Roger Palmgren and former contributor Mads Davidsen, fitness coach, Divan Augustyn and team physician, Ali Kad. Also following them came creative midfielder Davi – who bagged 14 goals in 27 league appearances from a deeper-lying midfield role last term. The foreign quartet of Ibán Cuadrado, Ransford Addo, Daniel McBreen and Imad Khalili were all shown the door in the winter transfer window, whilst the aformentioned Davi, Dario Conca, Jean Evrard Kouassi and Kim Ju-Young were drafted in in their place.
On the domestic front, veteran left back and former Shenhua man Sun Xiang returned to the city of his birth following the end of his contract at Guangzhou Evergrande – providing some much needed experience in an often problematic position last term. Lining up alongside him in a new look back four is the highly rated China Olympic captain Shi Ke, who signed from Hangzhou Greentown.
Deadline day saw Dalian Aerbin defender Yang Boyu come in to provide yet more competition along the backline. Yang’s career has stalled somewhat over the last year with injuries hampering his early impressive progress, however if the 25 year old can keep himself fit he will be a formidable addition to the squad.
Finally, the signing of 53 cap China winger, Yu Hai from Guizhou Renhe is arguably the biggest domestic signing of the winter transfer window. The winger, who had a short spell with Dutch side Vitesse Arnhem back in 2007, arrives with a wealth of domestic and international experience and can enhance and inspire the young talent that currently runs throughout the squad.
All in all, the myriad changes made at Shanghai Stadium since the close of play last year – making them the 9th biggest spenders in world football this winter in the process – leave the club in a commanding position to improve on their 5th placed finish in 2014.
The Foreigners: Of last season’s foreign contingent, only the CSL’s 3rd highest goalscorer Tobias Hysén remains at the club. The striker’s 19 league goals were crucial to East Asia’s ascent up the table last year, although the side were certainly guilty of being overly reliant on the Swedish international – along with the creative talents of the mercurial Wu Lei – to pull them out of trouble on more than one occasion.
This issue appears to have been addressed in the off-season, however, as the heavily experienced South American duo of Davi and former CSL and ACL winner with Guangzhou Evergrande, Dario Conca, have been signed up to provide greater craft and guile through the middle of the park. The signing of Conca is one that dominated the winter transfer window, with fans at Tianhe largely shocked and somewhat upset to find the man they once idolised pitching up in Shanghai, just one year after leaving them in what appeared to be his final career move – back to the club where he made his name in football, Fluminense.
As events transpired, the Brazilian club have found themselves on the verge of bankruptcy in recent months, and thus SIPG saw themselves faced with an opportunity they could not pass up on in signing a playmaker of legendary CSL status, whilst also sticking two fingers up to their chief opponents in the title race in the process.
Before signing Conca, the club’s focus squared on filling the void in central defence which had appeared following the release of Cuadrado and Addo. In came South Korean international centre back Kim Ju-Young for a fee of up to €2.25 million. Kim already has a K-League winners medal on his mantlepiece, and also claimed a spot in the Champions League team of the year back in 2013 when his previous side, FC Seoul, lost out to Conca’s Evergrande in the final.
The club’s final roll of the dice in the international transfer market was to bring in 20 year old winger Jean Evrard Kouassi from Hajduk Split for around €2 million. The Ivorian was highly regarded in Croatia, and his acquisition was deemed in many quarters as something of a coup for the club. His performance in his side’s final pre-season friendly against Tianjin last week certainly provided fans with plenty to look forward to; producing several blistering runs down the left flank and appearing positive and direct in his play throughout.
The Star: Without a doubt this mantle belongs to returning 3-time CSL winner, Dario Conca. The Argentinian lit up Tianhe during his 3 year stay in Guangzhou, and was the driving force behind their rise to dominance across not just China, but Asia as a whole.
The midfielder was ranked amongst The Times’ top 50 footballers in the world whilst in his Evergrande heyday, and if he can bring with him the same influence and effortless control of games as he so regularly displayed during his time in the south of China, then Shanghai could well once more have a side capable of challenging for the CSL title.
The Youngster: Big things are expected of 21 year old right back Fu Huan in the coming year, after a breakthrough campaign in 2014. The Shanghai born full back began last season in scintillating form, making the right back slot his own with a string of exciting attacking displays, frequently overlapping effectively with Wu Lei on the right wing. Nevertheless, the youngster’s form and fitness suffered throughout the latter stages of the season as too often opposition sides were able to exploit his overeagerness to bomb forward and leave rather gaping holes in his wake.
An injury sustained whilst on under-23 duty meant that his appearance tally throughout the second half of the year dwindled, but Fu can look forward to another year of progress in 2015, providing he can temper his attacking instincts with greater positional awareness and an understanding of precisely when – and indeed when not – to get forward.
The X Factor: The key to making 2015 a successful one for Shanghai will be in finding a way to accommodate the plethora of attacking options at Eriksson’s disposal into the side. Last year the team’s dependence on Hysén and Wu became far too common to enable them to present a sustained challenge for the top 3.
However, with the arrivals of Davi, Conca, Kouassi and Yu Hai, SIPG are now equipped with an arsenal of different attacking choices, with the unpredictable talents of Lv Wenjun and the steady contributions of Wang Jiayu also able to provide a spark going forward. Quite how the new manager will organise this collection of forward-thinking players into a cohesive attacking unit remains to be seen, although the foundations are certainly in place to provide some even more entertaining and exhilarating performances than in 2014.
The Prediction: Given the numerous improvements made throughout the club and the vast amount of money spent on upgrading the squad over the past four months, expectations are understandably high for the coming season. The new owners have brought in an internationally renowned manager and backed him extensively in the transfer market, and will require an early return on their investment if they are to consider 2015 a success. A top 3 finish will be seen as the minimum requirement of the new boss.
However, with rivals Guangzhou R&F facing an uncertain period of transition (coupled with a challenging debut Champions League campaign), perennial underachievers Shandong Luneng only managing one solitary signing – albeit that being current Brazilian international forward Diego Tardelli – and Beijing Guo’an looking unlikely to repeat their down-to-the-wire title challenge of 2014 after a fairly underwhelming transfer window of their own, the expectation is that the club should really be challenging the champions of the last four seasons, Guangzhou Evergrande, for the title.
The addition of domestic experience in key areas, coupled with the marquee signing of their title rivals’ former lynchpin, puts SIPG in excellent shape to finally disrupt the old order of CSL dominance. Shanghai expects, and anything less than Champions League qualification will be deemed as a failure. In truth, finishing outside the top 2 could conceivably put the new manager’s position under scrutiny.