SIPG FC can make first place their own on Sunday with a win at Tianjin TEDA. After neighbours Shanghai Shenhua lost in Beijing on Friday evening to end their 100% start to the campaign, can their cross-city rivals become the only team in the CSL to take maximum points from their opening four fixtures?
The Week That Was: A statement of intent
Guangzhou R&F were the visitors to Shanghai Stadium before the international break, and became the latest side to fall victim to the gradually improving attacking fluency of this new look SIPG side. Prior to kickoff there were smiles and handshakes aplenty; with manager Sven-Göran Ericsson and Davi both welcoming their former colleagues to their new stomping ground, while the familiar face of Jiang Zhipeng returned to face his childhood club.
Nonetheless, once the first whistle had been blown, all pleasantries were seemingly dismissed; as an intense and often tempestuous clash between two of last year’s most improved sides played out in front of a raucous 23,039 strong audience.
Shanghai began the game with the same starting lineup that had comfortably seen off Shenxin in their previous fixture. Once again, the central midfield partnership of Davi and Cai Huikang looked formidable; doggedly stifling their guests’ possession in the middle of the park and using this as a platform to launch fast-paced counter attacks via wingers Yu Hai and Wu Lei, or through the more central Dario Conca.
It was this midfield axis that laid the foundations for around 70 minutes of SIPG-dominated action, though that is not to say the visitors were entirely acquiescent in their approach, with last season’s 22 goal Moroccan forward, Abderrazak Hamdallah proving a persistent nuisance in the box alongside Aaron Olinare. SIPG stopper, Yan Junling was once again excellent when called upon to keep the sides level, whilst at the other end a combination of R&F ‘keeper, Liu Dianzuo, and the woodwork was the only thing keeping the two sides within reach of each other.
As events transpired, the deadlock was broken in the 37th minute of the first half after Davi surged down the right wing before crossing to Yu Hai, who finished with a near enough carbon copy of his debut goal against Jiangsu (albeit this time with his backside as opposed to the neat flick first time round). The second half began in much the same vein as the first had ended, although R&F improved as the final whistle approached, with the home side having to soak up an intense spell of pressure throughout the final stages of the game.
In fact, SIPG’s second goal owed much to the individual exploits of Tobias Hysén, just as R&F looked as though they might find an equaliser. He Guan’s lofted clearance fortunately found the path of Hysén, who’s clever first touch took him around Zhang Yaokun before curling a sumptuous shot past Liu from 25 yards out.
Still, the joy, and indeed relief, of the second goal was not to last, as SIPG once more sat back and allowed their guests to pile forward; resulting in a goal just two minutes later. R&F’s Spanish number 10, Michel was afforded far too much room for manoeuvre on the edge of the home side’s penalty area, and casually slipped in the unmarked Tang Miao whose first time cross somehow evaded the challenges of 5 SIPG players to find Hamdallah at the back post.
Fortunately for Shanghai, despite an incredibly nervy final 10 minutes, the scores stayed as they were, and, while the introduction of the pacy Jean Evrard Kouassi in injury time did encourage his side to push out more – the Ivorian should even have settled the game himself late into stoppage time – SIPG will be well served by curbing this particular trait of allowing sides back into the game, having controlled proceedings throughout.
The Big Issue: Squeaky Bum Time
Shanghai’s tendency to drop off their opposition in the final 20 minutes of matches has been an unwanted recurring theme across the opening fixtures. With it being still so early into the season, it remains to be seen whether this is simply the product of a somewhat unfamiliar group of players simply doing their best to protect a lead going into the final stages of the game. However, such an open invitation to allow opposition sides to take both possessional and territorial control in the final quarter is a high-risk strategy that requires every member of the side to pitch in and dig deep.
While SIPG’s defence has improved gradually game on game this year, it is still far too much to expect them to simply soak up a 20 minute torrent of pressure from their opponents week in week out. Add to this the striking lack of defensive midfield cover from the bench (with only the somewhat anonymous Wang Jiajie a natural in the role) and it becomes clear that this is not a sustainable gameplan – particularly with crucial ties against Beijing Guoan and Shanghai Shenhua on the horizon.
Singing from the same hymn sheet
Also key to any potential SIPG title challenge this year will be amalgamating the various array of attacking talents into a unit that understands each other. With the new faces in the side, it is reasonable to assume things will not simply fall into place. However, despite the 6 goals plundered inside their opening three games, SIPG could, and probably should have doubled that figure by now.
Manager Sven-Göran Eriksson has personally noted the current dissonance amongst some of his team’s forward thinking players, but they are nonetheless still scoring goals and winning games, and ultimately that is all that counts at this juncture.
At number 10, and working as his team’s prime creative force, Dario Conca’s 90 minutes against R&F encapsulated this prevailing malaise going forward, and offered a perfect snapshot into his time in Shanghai so far. The Argentinian remained frustratingly on a different wavelength to those around him for large periods of the game, but nevertheless still evidently possesses the ability to turn a game on its head with an inch-perfect through ball or a nimble-footed twist and turn to escape his marker.
Whilst we have seen those flashes only too fleetingly of what once made him the third highest paid footballer in the world behind Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo, they have proved a tantalising glimpse into what could be, providing he and his teammates can click more regularly.
Coming Up: A trip to Tianjin
SIPG travel to Tianjin on Sunday afternoon to face this year’s current biggest underachievers. Tianjin have struggled to perform to anywhere near their (fairly modest) expected levels so far this campaign, and in their last outing were helpless in allowing Shanghai Shenhua to leave the Olympic Stadium with a deserved three points.
Back in February, these two sides faced off against each other in a pre-season friendly; a fixture which ended in a rather drab 1-1 draw. Nonetheless, the fortunes of both sides have subsequently been set upon polarised trajectories. Whereas Tianjin have thus far faltered to get their season going, SIPG have taken maximum points from their opening three matches; and looked steadily more cohesive as an attacking unit.
On paper – particularly given recent form – this should be a walk in the park for the visiting side. Shanghai must, of course, guard against the possibility of Tianjin finally getting their act together, and certainly not allow themselves to sit back towards the end of the game, but they have more than enough within their ranks to make this a routine victory. 3-0.