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CFA Cup

Big guns enter CFA Cup as Third Round kicks off

With CSL teams entering the CFA Cup at the third round stage this Tuesday and Wednesday, takes a closer look at the competition as well as highlighting some of the more interesting ties to look out for.

Format…

Clear Path: Teams in the CFA Cup no their prospective opponents in advance

Clear Path: Teams in the CFA Cup know their prospective opponents in advance

Having kicked off with a qualifying competition in a Guangzhou high school back in January, the CFA Cup really gets going this week as the Super League teams enter the competition in the third round phase. Instead of the random draw that European fans may be used to, the Chinese version of the knockout competition is laid out in a bracket format in a similar way to how opponents are predetermined in the knockout phases of the World Cup or a tennis competition. The twist in the CFA Cup is that the Super League sides all avoid each other in this round and, interestingly, all have to go on the road to take on their lower league opponents.

The Story So Far…

The Cup’s first round featured a total of 32 sides,16 from League Two and 16 from the amateur leagues, and the winners of those ties hosted the 16 League One teams in the second round. Five of those second round ties resulted in the lower ranked side advancing and that means Dalian Transcendence, Anhui Litian, Meizhou Wuhua, Wuhan Hongxin and Wuhan Xinjiyuan will all have the privilege of hosting Super League opposition this week.

Wuhan Hongxin advanced courtesy of a win over Wuhan Zall in a very local derby as the two sides’ stadiums are a twenty minute walk apart. The other Wuhan side, Xinjiyuan, booked their place in the last 32 with a victory over surprise 2014 semi-finalists Qingdao Hainiu (see video below), while Meizhou Wuhua overcame League One strugglers Hunan Billows. Anhui Litian claimed a major scalp with a win over 2014 Super League side Harbin Yiteng and Dalian Transcendence bested Beijing Institute of Technology in a penalty shoot-out. Indeed, seven of the second round ties were decided on penalties and Transcendence were the only lower league side to win their duel.

Slow to get going…

The reason for the high volume of second round shoot-outs is simply that CFA Cup games feature no extra-time and no replays. This certainly creates greater potential for an upset and should, in theory, give the stronger CSL team the impetus to attack and win the game knowing that they only have 90 minutes to do so.

The problem is, and this is the competition’s major flaw, is that not many teams take it seriously. Despite an automatic AFC Champions’ League place being given to the winner, teams tend to play weakened sides until the latter phases of the competition.

There are numerous reasons for this. Sides who are still in the Champions’ League or who are chasing the title just see the competition as a burden, while those threatened by relegation fear a protracted cup run may damage their league form and cost them their CSL status (think Wigan Athletic in 2013). Meanwhile, many League One sides feel they have no realistic prospect of winning the trophy and therefore don’t want to jeapordise possible promotion or risk falling into the abyss of League Two while trying to compete with their CSL counterparts.

Magic of the Cup: Ryan McGowan celebrates his last gasp winner in last season's cup final second leg

Magic of the Cup: Ryan McGowan celebrates his last gasp winner in last season’s cup final second leg

As the tournament gets to the quarter-final and, particularly, semi-final stage starting line-ups get stronger as the prospect of silverware and Champions’ League football becomes more realistic. The semi-final and final are played over a two-legged basis and last year’s final four – Shanghai Shenhua, Qingdao Hainiu, Jiangsu Sainty and, eventual winners, Shandong Luneng – all fielded strong line-ups. As it turned out, this failed to ramp up the excitement in some very one-sided semi-finals, but anyone who saw the dramatic conclusion to last season’s final in Nanjing will be unable to deny that both the trophy and the Champions’ League place mean an awful lot to the players involved.

Things to look out for in the third round…

As mentioned above, the layout of the CFA Cup means that all 16 third round ties feature a CSL team travelling to a lower league ground and this offers up a number of fascinating clashes. One of the standout ties will see Guangzhou Evergrande make a round-trip of over 6,000 kilometers to face Xinjiang in Urumqi. With the CSL champions facing a huge league game at home to table-topping Shanghai SIPG just two days later, none of their top players are likely to make the journey and this gives the League One side a decent chance of an upset in front of what is likely to be an enthusiastic crowd.

Jiangsu Sainty players were devastated by their late defeat to Shandong Lneng in last year's CFA Cup final

Jiangsu Sainty players were devastated by their late defeat to Shandong Luneng in last year’s CFA Cup final

Holders and five time winners Shandong Luneng travel to Hubei to take on amateur side Wuhan Xinjiyuan, while last year’s runners-up Jiangsu Sainty face a tricky tie against the plucky Guizhou Zhicheng. Shenzhen FC will host Beijing Guo’an in a match that the southern side’s fans will be desperate to win.

However, should the Super League outfit prevail, a potential Beijing derby with BG could be on the horizon. BG will take on Shijiazhuang Ever Bright and can be relatively confident of being able to compete with a side who finished just two points above them in last season’s League One. In an interview after last weekend’s league victory over Hebei CFFC, BG coach Aleksander Stanojevic played down the importance of the cup, but the prospect of facing his former club must be an enticing one for the Serbian.

In other potential upsets, Hebei CFFC will fancy their chances of overcoming the lackluster Shanghai Shenxin and Dalian Aerbin could well be capable of toppling a Chongqing Lifan side who effectively replaced them in this year’s Super League. Finally, it’s worth noting that both sides involved in this weekend’s remarkable Shanghai derby have to refocus in preparation for trips to League Two opposition.

CSL leaders SIPG will have half an eye on Friday’s game in Guangzhou as they head north to take on Dalian Transcendence in Tuesday’s only game, while Shenhua have to put their disastrous week behind them as they go to Guangdong to take on Meizhou Wuhua. Although, Wuhua failed to achieve promotion in 2014’s League Two playoffs, they actually had the best record in the league phase of the competition and are not to be taken lightly by a side who could do with a spirit lifting cup run.

A full list of fixtures and kick off times (in Chinese) can be found here.

Based in China for five years, Jamie has been exploring tiny little third tier Hubei cities without football teams or decent internet connections, but is now a regular at China League One side Wuhan Zall.

A keen football afficionado, he regularly takes in the Chinese Super League, enjoying matches in Shanghai, Hangzhou, Guangzhou and Nanjing.

Jamie is also a keen observer of the fortunes of the Chinese National side.

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