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Pub Talk: Goalkeepers drinking the coolaid?

You thought they were trying to quit drinking, but it’s pub time again, as Shanghai Ultra and Bcheng congregate in their favourite spot again. This week it’s all about dodgy media talking about keepers, the ACL, East v West and what’s been going on in the CSL. There’s much talk of referees again – when will they stop making themselves so topical? Shandong are on the up and on the pub agenda, and so are the other three teams on top of the league. It’s all a little odd this week. Pull up a stool and join in the discussion, what’s been getting your goat balls? Do tell. Cheers!

SU: Hello once more B, we’ve made it the pub again at last.

BC: Happy to be back in this comfortable seat amongst friends and a nice cold beer as its getting hotter outside.

SU: It is and also a bit sticky. This beer is just what the doctor ordered. So what’s new in the Chinese football world?

BC: Well, let’s start out with what happened in continental football, Guangzhou Evergrande was able to turn things around in their tie against Seongnam, advancing to the quarterfinals for the third year in a row. Unfortunately, also for the third year in a row, they are the only Chinese representative to get that far.

SU: Yes I was surprised by that. I thought Guoan were good value to go further, what happened there?

BC: It was unfortunate, but it represented much of what’s wrong with Guoan this year: controlling possession with very little put together in the final third, not enough shooting, and then too little too late desperation.

SU: I didn’t catch the game unfortunately. Although I saw some highlights, Guoan looked like they indeed had a lot of the game. Disappointing for China. Looks to me like the CSL in Asia has taken one step forward in recent years, but no further.

BC: Yes, I’ve posted on that today, it seems the same thing every year. You have Evergrande competing, Guoan & Shandong shooting for Round of 16 but not beyond that, and whoever the fourth Chinese side is they’ll go out early.

SU: Yeah, that’s what I mean. Seems like a very clear pattern. It’s better than where we were at say, 4 years ago, but now it looks like a rut.

BC: Exactly, and at least when looking at Guoan, it doesn’t seem to be changing. To be honest, after I got over the disappointment, it hit me that it was actually for the best, Guoan wasn’t going to get much further, so why not just go out and be able to put their full focus on things domestically.

SU: That is one way of looking at it. But I would say the quality of teams in the knock-out stage is fairly even, there’s not anyone really dominant. If you can get to the quarter finals, then there’s no reason why you couldn’t go all the way.

BC: I do think there’s some truth to that, just look at Western Sydney last season, but at the same time, anyone looking at this Guoan side knows that they aren’t good enough yet. They may only be a few pieces away, but there’s still a gap there.

SU: What does Guoan need to go further?

BC: I’m not convinced that Batalla is the right man to rely upon as much as they do. It would also be good to have another attacking option, Erton has struggled as of late and I’m thinking what we saw last year was a bit of a contract year mirage.

SU: So how about Evergrande. Will they go further?

BC: That’s a good question. Like you said, it kinda is up for grabs from this point on, it depends on the draw to some extent, but Guangzhou has a lot of injuries to deal with, they only had one foreigner on the field last night and I wasn’t expecting them to even get as far as they did.

SU: Yes it was an interesting line-up. Seongnam only had one more foreigner than Evergrande did in their starting line-up though. So it was in some ways close to a straight Korea-China match.

BC: There are two months for them to get healthy, which will definitely help, but I just feel they’re going to struggle.

SU: Yeah. For me I really think the ACL took some of the sheen off it by not allowing the East and West to meet until the final. It means we are seeing the similar teams each year for longer, at least before when east met west in the semi, it wasn’t that bad. It’s especially poor because we only ever see Australian, Chinese, Japanese or South Korean teams in the eastern knockout.

BC: I go back and forth on this. I don’t think it was the best decision as it cheapens things to me. However, it does allow for more travel to these later stage matches and it also potentially builds up some rivalries between these sides.

SU: That’s true. But as it stands, it’s splitting the confederation in all but name really.

BC: Right, plus as we talked about previously, its unnecessary, in general things end up fairly even between the two sides when we get to the semis.

SU: Yeah plus our sense of feeling the ACL is a bit samey each year is probably confounded by the CSL teams doing the same thing each year as we said. But samey continental competitions? Sounds like the ACL is getting closer to its goal of emulating the European Champions League than anyone imagined.

BC: Well, enough of the ACL until it pops up again in two months, there’s actually been a Chinese football story getting international attention as of late….

SU: Yes, are you talking about goalkeepers being caught unawares?

BC: Indeed. Although I think too much has been made regarding the keeper, to me his teammates are just as much at fault and I hope this makes some sides think twice about the multiplayer arguing with referees that goes on all too often in China.

SU: I think it’s absurd to focus on the keeper, as some sources have done. And I think he was fined, which is even more stupid if that’s the case, the club putting the blame on the individual. The whole team is to blame of course. I think that, although it makes Chongqing looks stupid, I fully agree, this kind of thing needs to happen more often to stop idiot players bunching around the referee.

BC: Yeah, I think the media and the club have both been unfair, placing too much blame on the keeper, fining him and possibly even suspending him, when its the fault of many players, including veteran Sun Jihai, who should have known better.

SU: He of all people should know. There’s so many free-kicks taken quickly elsewhere on the pitch, players are a bit thick to assume it should always be different just because there’s a scoring opportunity if its closer to goal.

BC: We can only hope some good will come from all this.

SU: I hope so. I’d like to see stronger and more bold referees in the CSL to drum some sense into the players, too many of whom seem to lack discipline.

BC: We have been talking about this for as long as the pub has been going on, but it seems that things have gotten even worse this season, with multiple incidents of players making physical contact with the referee.

SU: We have. I really strongly feel the standard of refereeing has gone backwards. Seems to me that every other week there’s critical decisions made incorrectly. If we can cast our minds back to the Shanghai derby a few weeks back, not something I really want to do, but, for the sake of making a positive point I will. The referee in that match (Ma Ning) was extremely strict, something which I welcome and think is necessary. But of course his efforts are a waste, because other referees interpretation of the rules are much more liberal. Infact not only were Ma Ning’s efforts a waste, they were also counter-productive, hence one team with 8 men and a whole host of yellows which ruined the match.

BC: Haha, yes, another topic we’ve talked about. The quality of play is getting better, we need to see the same out of the referees. Speaking of the quality of play, we have a bit of a logjam at the top right now.

SU: Yes, and I think not only is there a logjam, but it almost seems some logarithm of some sort is necessary to work out who is actually top, thanks to the head-to-head-to-head-to-head tiebreaker the CSL uses – four teams are on 22 points.

BC: I think Shandong is at the top due to reserve league results, not the best way, especially as they use first teamers instead of youngsters. Anyways, I don’t think we’ll see it stay like this all season long, indeed, it’s likely to change tonight as there’s a doozy in Xujiahui, with SIPG taking on Shandong.

SU: Is that how it is resolved ? Let’s just hope it doesn’t come down to that on the final day. Yes, tonight’s game will be very interesting. I have a feeling SIPG may struggle.

BC: Is it just me or is Shandong’s position sort of a surprise? They struggled in the ACL and have had a few odd results (losses to Liaoning and Tianjin and crushing wins over Jiangsu & Beijing), then all the sudden they are at the top of the table.

SU: Yes I was quite bemused to see them sitting astride the table. Their ACL incompetance and focus on Kuka’s suitability for the job distracted us from their domestic prowess. I think they’re on a run of form, and they also beat you guys which was a six-pointer in terms of top positions.

BC: Yeah, it will be interesting to see how long they stay top. SIPG are no longer the young, plucky side that we need to worry about in big matches, they are up for it now, I disagree with you that they’ll struggle in this one.

SU: They missed Yu Hai in their last match against Guizhou and didn’t look very clever at all. As an aside, I don’t get these contractural clauses where players can’t play against their former team at the first opportunity. What’s the point in those?

BC: Agreed, its one thing when we’re talking about a loan deal, but when a club buys a player, they should be free to use him as they wish.

SU: Yeah I mean, Yu Hai can’t not play against Guizhou for ever, so why not get his first appearance against them out of the way? It’s really strange. Anyway, I caught Shanghai International Port Group’s last game, defensively they looked really frail, and I was shocked to see Guizhou play way better than their lowly position suggested. It’s interesting how whoever Shenhua play, Shanghai International Port Group play in the following match. So I’ve seen plenty of Shandong and Shanghai International Port Group of late, Shandong won’t get beat is my prediction.

BC: You really enjoy writing Shanghai International Port Group, eh? Well, there you have it, our predictions are in for this barn burner. We talked about laying hands on referees, any other interesting trends or things that you’veseen through the first third of the season?

SU: Ha ha, yes I do enjoy writing Shanghai International Port Group, that is the clubs name so I’d hate there to be any confusion for our readers. Actually they are also dubbed “Acronym FC” by our own correspondent Steve Crooks, although I think they should be Anagram FC myself personally. About trends, I think refereeing is the obvious one, can’t think of any other clear themes at the moment, although that may change as the year wears on.

BC: For me, I think its heavily Evergrande related. First, we have a Chinese player in serious contention for the Golden Boot, something we don’t see often, with Gao Lin only one behind Goulart. The other one is that, as shocking as this may sound considering they are tied for first, Cannavaro has definitely needed an adjustment period and is still learning the ropes and his side has struggled in adjusting.

SU: How do you feel about Gao Lin stealing the headlines for Chinese players?

BC: So painful for me, of course, but he’s had a good run of things. I think he’s been able to pair easily with Goulart and Elkeson, finding plenty of opportunities

SU: He plays out wide I think though does he not? Chances a bit less frequent out there. But, all the same it’s good to see Chinese players in the mix on the scoring charts.

BC: It’s also interesting to see a return to having promoted sides playing well, Shijiazhuang have been surprisingly decent so far and have had amazing support to boot.

SU: Yes they are almost a like-for-like replacement for Harbin, except they are actually winning games. They’ve also managed to do what Evergrande and many others have failed to do – take three points away from Henan.

BC: I’m looking forward to a trip there later on in the season.

SU: Yes, we all remember what happened in one of your trips there a couple of years back. It’s not an easy place to go. And the surface is a joke.

BC: On that subject, I was shocked at how bad the pitch was in Jiangsu. We tend to see pitch issues in northern China, but that they can’t grow grass in Nanjing is unfortunate.

SU: I didn’t see that although I’ve been to the Olympic Stadium in Nanjing a few times and never noticed it being a problem before. Again, this is a recurring theme we’ve discussed, which is unfortunate. I remember the pitch at Shanghai Stadium looking parched and yellow a couple of years back during the derby, yet right next door a perfectly manicured and lush green massive lawn in a hotel garden.

BC: So we’re treated to a great four days of football this weekend, but not sure anything tops tonight’s proceedings, any other thoughts on the weekend?

SU: Yeah you said it, tonight’s game is the pick of the bunch, the rest of the fixtures are kinda meh but its ok, we can’t have blockbusters everyweek and I’m sure there will be plenty of action nevertheless.

BC: True, at the same time, I think we’re starting to find out how serious some of these sides are, this is a chance to see if they’ll be able to keep pace with the top sides or just fall into mid table mediocrity. No blockbusters but a lot of very even matches, Tianjin (16 pts) v. R&F (15 pts), Shenhua (14 pts) v. Shijiazhuang (15 pts), Henan (12 pts) v. Liaoning (14 pts), Hangzhou (11 pts) v. Changchun (10 pts). Looking at that, we can expect plenty of good clashes this weekend.

SU: Yes – there’s going to be a lot of movement in the table come what may. And I confidently predict that Mao Jianqing will score for Shijuazhuang against Shenhua.

BC: He’s been playing pretty well this year, perhaps he’s finally grown up.

SU: He has, although he was fined by the club for display of petulance at being subbed. Too late for him unfortunately to make much of his career. What a waste.

BC: Well, I for one am hoping he does get that goal, perhaps a late winner like a few years ago in Beijing….

SU: Haha. The only goal he scored for Guoan. I think he also scored against Shenhua for Hangzhou and Shaanxi.

BC: On that note, is it time to bring this session to a close?

SU: I think so. Good to see you again, cheers man.

BC: Cheers mate, it’s been fun.

SU: Indeed, until next time.

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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