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Pub Talk: Chopsticks Doghouse

This week Chris Atkins joins Shanghai Ultra in the pub to discuss many things. Bcheng’s absence is a laughing matter, the ACL is good for Evergrande and Guoan, and some middle-ranking teams are on the agenda, as is the rise of Shanghai football, or, well Shanghai International Port Group anyway. That’s it this week, pull up a stool and have a pint and leave your take on things in the comments section.

Shanghai Ultra: Today Bcheng appears to be still in the doghouse after a certain match a couple of weeks ago. So we welcome back co-editor Chris Atkins to the drinking establishment. Welcome Chris!

Chris: Hello, how are you then? Yes, it seems Mrs Cheng was less impressed with your partying than you were. But, I’ll have a pint on B’s behalf this week.

S: Just as long as it’s not a pint of Baijiu, which is what Bcheng appeared to have consumed, last time I saw him.

C: I’ll try to avoid that potentially fateful mistake. So, perhaps to bring the topic round to on-pitch matters briefly, it’s been a Champions League week again. Evergrande are through, R&F out, with Shandong and Guoan’s fate heading to Round 6. What did you make of it all?

S: I was amused by the Shandong game last night, it was as if they were trying to score as many scrappy goals as possible. Their Vietnamese opponents looked pretty decent I thought. Which is interesting because for a few years, the AFC didn’t let teams from SE Asia into the group stage.

C: Yes, I think it’s a great innovation to at least let them into the qualification rounds. Then, if they prove their worth, nobody can have any arguments. For me, Shandong’s task is difficult. Other than the Vietnamese, they are yet to win a game. They have to beat the usually strong Jeonbuk in Korea now. No easy task.

S: I think Shandong are unlikely to make it, just don’t feel they gel properly as a side, despite their big investment and relatively stable club environment.

C: I have to agree. For all the investment last year and in Tardelli, they still feel like a collection of individuals. What about Guoan then? Having looked so comfortable with three opening wins, they have now drawn and lost. They now likely have to avoid defeat in Suwon. It’s perfectly manageable but not an ideal scenario.

S: I think Guoan will make it. Ironically they are above Suwon in the standings, but due to head-to-head tiebreak rules, Suwon are guaranteed safe passage to the knock out round.

C: I agree, they’ll make it. They have enough backbone to see it through and were a bit unfortunate against Brisbane.

S: I didn’t catch that game. I think we are basically talking about Guoan and Evergrande in the knockout round, which is what most of us expected I think. Evergrande have strangely played better in the ACL than the CSL so far which is odd.

C: I think Evergrande are still somewhat finding their feet, although two clean-sheets since Zeng Cheng returned is no surprise. Li Shuai is truly awful.

Yeah he’s past it. Even Shenhua decided not to sign him, when they had the chance during the winter.

C: Did you see the incident on the weekend which caused such fuss, where Zeng berated new signing Wang Shangyuan for allowing Hangzhou a chance—pushing Wang quite forcibly? Some saw it as picking on a young player. As a Brit who is used to belligerent goalkeepers, I liked it. I want a ‘keeper who is 100% focused on a clean-sheet and lets his defence know as much.

S: I think its good, Chinese players are too agreeable for the most part. There needs to be more of this kind of direct communication, although maybe pushing isn’t necessary. but it’s not a big deal if it happens, its important for the keeper to keep the defence well kept.

C: I think there would have been less surprise had it been Wang Dalei. Zeng is seen as a quieter character, but I agree with what you say.

S: That’s right. Well, what can we say about R&F’s ACL adventure?

C: Well, it started promisingly but that second fixture with Buriram stopped all momentum dead. I think we’re seeing a decent side but average squad, unable to cope with fighting on two fronts.

S: That seems to be a pattern for new CSL teams in Asia. There’s certainly a need for depth in a squad, of course. And I think few clubs really have that depth, outside of Evergrande, and perhaps Beijing.

C: Pretty much, I think Evergrande are still the leading Chinese force on the Asian stage and the results show as much. Hopefully Guoan join them, though, as their long term form has been so solid. Moving on to domestic matters, the main talking point must be Henan. Most tipped them to struggle but they’ve pulled off some strong results so far.

S: They have and they are the surprise package this season so far. Although I watched their game against Shenhua, I can’t say I felt they were particularly impressive. Shenhua were disjointed and all over the shop – as evidenced by Gilliot taking off not one but two Shenhua defenders at half time. I am not sure how that side managed to beat Evergrande.

C: What they have got is a home ground with a good atmosphere and dodgy pitch. Their record there is excellent. Beyond that it’s five at the back and counter with Ivo supplying the two forwards. Thus far, it’s working.

S: Old school sytle!

C: Pretty much. I watched your chaps against them. My word, you’re missing Paulo Henrique. With no width it’s all fairly stagnant without his pace.

S: Indeed, it’s ironic that last season no-one would have complained if Shenhua had done their usual trick of moving on their foreign players as soon as possible and letting Henrique go.

C: Let’s hope he’s back soon as there was a decent balance to your side before.

S: It takes a minor miracle worker to balance out such an inherently imbalanced squad as Shenhua’s. It was actually more balanced last season, somehow. Shenhua’s transfer policy is misguided at best, and, well, ummm. Something else at worse.

C: Haha, you Scots always see the bright side. Shanghai is definitely the city to be in for football stories right now, though. SIPG top and unbeaten. Shenxin bottom and pointless (no pun intended).

S: SIPG are showing that the club had gone as far as it could under Xu Genbao and his rather, er, old school methods. Now they’ve gotten licence to sign quality Chinese players to compliment the solid foreign buys and the output of their youth division, which was holiding them back before.

C: Sven has surprised me in China, he’s stuck around and now started to repeat his good job at R&F with SIPG. However, thinking about it now I’m not so surprised. He’s personable, so the players like him and he doesn’t complicate things. It’s ideal for the sometimes tactically inept local players.

S: Yeah he must be such a breath of fresh air after Xu. Weather that is a good thing or not, I think really depends on player personalities. There’s no doubt some Chinese players, maybe even most, need an authoritarian to keep them in line and focused on the job. But perhaps the more talented ones benefit from being given a more hands off approach. It is said that Cao Yunding and Bai Jiajun both left East Asia to join Shenhua because they couldn’t stand Xu.

C: Xu was very much from another era. Shenxin, though, seem to be run by similarly single-minded folk. When you are winless after five, replacing your manager with his assistant who has no experience is bizarre. Surely he was involved in the mess?

S: Yes, if there is anyone who is not confused by events at Shenxin, please contact us immediately and explain WTF is going on.

C: It would be very helpful. All I’ll say is I’m expecting another managerial change there before long.

S: I’m still trying to work out why they fired Zhu Jiong. He was keeping a team with not much money and no fans and even less long-term CSL prospects, in the league.

C: Well, that was a strange decision. Now he’s on the chopping block at Guizhou. There’s another rubbish side. The CSL may be improving year on year but there are some truly terrible sides near the bottom. Oddly, I include neither promoted side in that.

S: Yeah I think Guizhou have had a lot of internal problems, and I’m not sure any manager can sort them out. They have definitely fallen down from the ACL contender bracket. Your point however about the new teams is well made. Chongqing look competant, Shijiazhuang as well will take points off teams regularly.

C: I feel sorry for Chongqing, they’ve played five of the top six so far and looked a pretty good side. They should start to pick up points now

S: Again I saw them at Hongkou a couple of weeks ago. They could have won the game on another day. However, they looked worse than Henan to be honest. Slow and they gained a point more from Shenhua’s failing than their own good effort in my view.

C: They may be worse, but they’ve played some pretty strong sides and not been disgraced. As ever, though, caution is advised. Form often changes dramatically for teams near the bottom in the summer—by fair or foul means.

S: Yes. So, what’s on the list this weekend that you think is worthy?

C: I’d say give Shijiazhuang-Tianjin a miss on Friday unless you’re really desperate. The same goes for most of Saturday’s games. Shandong-Beijing on Sunday is the weekend’s real standout, while Evergrande-Jiangsu could be a decent watch. Sadly, they are on at the same time.

S: I’d go along with that. I would say that Shenhua v Hangzhou is a derby, but I haven’t seen a good Shenhua v Hangzhou game in a while. Shandong v Beijing is a good early season baraometer of who will be up there at the end.

C: It’s a big game for Shandong. Cuca can’t afford to lose too much ground this early on. As for Shenhua-Hangzhou, the latter are a dull, dull side to watch under Troussier.

S: I haven’t seen them, but I was surprised by the appointment. He got Shenzhen relegated, and they didn’t come back up again.

C: Yeah, it was unexpected. I guess we should be wrapping up, you have Real Madrid tickets to buy I know.

S: I don’t know, if they don’t win the champions league, they won’t be worthy of my attention.

C: Glory supporting as ever…

S: Real v AC reserves, might be worth skipping a haircut for. If anything it will be good to go and laugh at the local and foriegn fairweather fans who look down their noses at the CSL. Fuckers.

C: Given how many times I’ve used the words terrible and awful today, I feel I’m not helping.

S: You obviously need to relocate yourself to a more positive ecosystem.

C: I do indeed, so perhaps we should exit the pub on that note. For all sorts of ecosystem, please check LETV, proud sponsors of Chinese football and (hint, hint) potentially if they wish.

S: Hha ha yes, hint, cough cough. Well, thanks for joining me today Chris. Cheers!

C: No worries. Cheers!

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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