SIPG FC’s unbeaten start to 2015 has seen them rise to first place following last weekend’s hard earned victory at home to newly promoted Chongqing Lifan. Whilst only a point separates themselves and Guangzhou Evergrande in second, Shanghai’s next two games – first at home to Henan Jianye, then a trip to Hangzhou the following week – present them with the opportunity to cement their place ahead of the chasing pack.
With one eye fixed firmly on the upcoming Shanghai derby, as well as a visit to Tianhe to take on Evergrande, the next few weeks will no doubt prove to be crucial to SIPG’s chances of challenging for the title. Your SIPG correspondent, Andy Strong takes a look at some of the talking points from the early season action.
Hysén needs teammates to share the burden of goal scoring
Despite their unbeaten start to the season, Shanghai have still too often been far too profligate in front of goal, with the SIPG attack’s decision making and finishing in the final third being frustratingly off at times. Five goal forward, Tobias Hysén is the team’s go to man to finish anything inside the final 20 metres, however if he is not at his best, Shanghai have frequently shown themselves to be lacking that predatory edge when presented an opportunity.
Last Sunday’s late win over Chongqing proved a perfect illustration of such frustrations, as SIPG spurned numerous invitations to comfortably win the game before winger, Jean Kouassi headed home the winner in the 88th minute. Kouassi himself, having started the last three games, has looked inventive in attack and possesses blistering pace, but has on occasion suffered from a lack of composure to make the right decision in front of goal.
If Kouassi, along with fellow forwards, Wu Lei and Yu Hai can increase their efficiency inside the box, then SIPG really could have a chance of mounting a title challenge.
Darío Conca is edging towards his talismanic best
It might perhaps be harsh to suggest, given Shanghai drew the two games in which he was missing, but it has to be said that SIPG fans could have expected a little more from CSL superstar Darío Conca thus far, not least with the number 10 set to earn a rumoured £6-10 million (depending on who you believe) over the duration of his contract.
Nonetheless, having missed the previous two games following an early horror challenge from Tianjin defender, Guo Hao – which took a chunk out of Conca’s leg and left him needing stiches to plug the hole in his calf – Conca returned to face Chongqing, and showed just why the owners invested so much to bring him to the club. The Argentinian was yet again technically the best player on the pitch – as evidenced by his effortless ability to manoeuvre his way past one, two or even three defenders – and it was his in-swinging free kick which found Kouassi for the winner.
It also appears his fellow attackers may be starting to adapt to his style of play and recognising what he wants from them going forward, with far more passes finding their intended recipient as a result. A look at the CSL stats show that Conca has raced up to joint 4th in the number of key passes made, and 3rd in crosses delivered, despite sitting out 2 games through injury.
Defensive injuries and rotation continue to threaten an encouraging start to the campaign
SIPG began the season with new centre backs Shi Ke and Yang Boyu both injured, and the inexperienced He Guan filling in alongside Kim Joo-Young at the heart of defence. He has looked increasingly more assured as games have gone by, however his elbow on Beijing forward, Dejan Damjanović – which went unpunished at the time – saw him miss the Chongqing tie as he began the first of a retrospective three game ban.
Yang Boyu took his place and looked composed both on and off the ball, however, an injury to his partner Kim meant that Shanghai’s back line was forced into yet another reshuffle. Wang Jiajie came in alongside Yang, and despite putting in a generally commendable performance, was guilty of being sucked in by Chongqing’s Emmanuel Gigliotti – whilst Yang found himself in no man’s land – allowing Issam El Adoua in at the back post for his side’s equaliser.
SIPG will no doubt be eagerly awaiting the return of the highly rated Shi Ke, as a fully fit trio of Shi, Kim and Yang would certainly provide Shanghai with a much firmer foundation at the back.
Number of wasted set pieces not befitting of a title-challenging side
The biggest frustration amongst SIPG fans this year has been the incredible amount of free kicks and corners that have gone to waste. With the pace and trickery that Shanghai possess going forward, the team has won a large proportion of free kicks inside the final third of the pitch.
If only 50% of these actually found either a Shanghai player or the goal itself, SIPG could easily have doubled their goal tally this year. Having been awarded 99 free kicks so far, the sheer volume of attacking set pieces that have failed to even make it over the wall is simply not good enough.
Corners are a similar story, far too often not even clearing the first man. SIPG have been awarded the most corners in league (47), 9 more than Evergrande in second – but have yielded only one goal as a result, as deliveries have not been up to expectations.
Home fans can really make a difference this year in the oversized Shanghai Stadium
Attendances at the 80,000-seater Shanghai Stadium have increased dramatically this year, with an average attendance so far of 24,674 almost double that of 2014. With the club’s largest fan group, Sirius, expanding into their second block, as well as new groups being established alongside them, the atmosphere at home games this season has been remarkable.
Indeed with the Shanghai derby a little over two weeks away, the contest is primed to be the most memorable of any clash featuring two Shanghai sides in recent memory, not least if the suggested anticipated attendance of 50,000 is achieved. Shanghai’s opening game against Jiangsu Sainty drew in 31,625 spectators, and it is not a stretch to believe that figures could reach the 50,000 mark, particularly if last season’s impressive away contingent is anything to go by.
Preview & Prediction
Henan visit Shanghai on Sunday afternoon coming off the back of impressive recent victories over Shanghai Shenhua and champions Guangzhou Evergrande that have seen them climb up to fourth spot in the CSL table.
Whoever is called upon to fill the centre back positions this weekend will surely have been briefed on the need to ensure Henan striker, Javier Patiño is not allowed the opportunity to add to the four goals he has scored already this season. It will be no surprise to see Shanghai concede, however, their improved offensive fluency, and their greater overall attacking talents should be enough to keep them at the top for another week. 2-1.