Football fans can be notoriously complex to understand. Fiercely loyal one minute, fickle the next. There is not always underlying logic to their likes and dislikes, while often support can be divided.
And so, this weekend’s top of the table Chinese Super League clash between Guangzhou Evergrande and current leaders Shanghai SIPG is particularly intriguing.
Bragging rights and potentially crucial points are on offer, yet the balance of power at the top of the Chinese game has been relegated to somewhat of a post-script in much of the build-up.
As far as headline writers are concerned, “Dario Conca” is the only keyword of relevance this week. How will he be received upon his return to former hunting grounds?
The “King of Tianti” is back in town for the first time since the final of the 2013 AFC Champions League. That day, he carved his name deep into the foundations of the stadium and the club which inhabits it.
So great were his performances in that period that, besides being bestowed a “kingdom”, he was also named the CSL’s Player of the Year ahead of his departure.
He left on a high, returning to former side Fluminense leaving the fans wanting more. It was the ideal exit, but the fairytale was not to be so simple.
A year on, with the Carioca side in financial difficulty, Conca is back in China and back in red. Sadly for the Evergrande masses, this time it is the dollars on offer from the direction of Shanghai SIPG which have attracted him back.
The former idol is now a “money grabber” in the eyes of some, with the press pack gleefully lapping up the quotes of those claiming betrayal in recent days. The delicious irony of such complaints will not be lost on other supporters around the country.
The vast majority, though, will welcome Conca back to Guangzhou. Supporters flocked in numbers to greet the Argentine as he attended pre-match training on Thursday, desperate for autographs and photos with their former idol.
The truth is, Conca was largely unappreciated in Guangzhou until the final months of his initial two-and-a-half year China sojourn. Indeed, he didn’t help himself, earning a reputation as a sulky character for his semi-regular demands to return to South America.
Yet, at times he was magical and was the central cog in Evergrande creating history—even if the AFC themselves awarded teammate Muriqui their MVP award. He was Asian football’s best midfielder by a considerable distance and his 25-goal haul that season was key to all the club achieved.
A belated outpouring of emotion followed the announcement of his departure, but his decision had been made. In absentia, though, his importance to the side became clear. Evergrande have never managed to dictate games in quite the same manner and the clammer for his return this winter was understandable.
But Conca is now the past and the Tianhe Stadium now has a young pretender to his throne in Ricardo Goulart.
The match-up between the pair this weekend will doubtless be key to the overall result. Goulart may not dictate games as Conca once did, but his 14 goals in 13 starts for his new side is an impressive start to life in Asia.
It will be a clash of No. 10 styles, with each team adapting to suit the strengths of their respective stars.
“On the pitch there will be no friends,” was Evergrande coach Fabio Cannavaro’s assessment of Conca’s impending return.
“Once the game starts, he is our opposition. Whoever our opponent is, we will give our all to play at our best.”
Evergrande have had their issues this season, but have begun to hit their stride of late. Second string sides have lost out to Western Sydney and Xinjiang in cup competition, but their last five league games have brought 13 points and 19 goals. Defensive frailties remain, but Cannavaro’s side are beginning to click going forward.
For SIPG, with both Conca and fellow Evergrande veteran Sun Xiang in their squad, they will benefit from insight into many of the internal workings of their opponents.
“I’m sure the fans will be glad to see them,” manager Sven-Goran Eriksson said. “These are two players who helped Evergrande to their best ever results. Regardless of that, their experience will be a great help to us in this match.”
SIPG have signed well, also drawing on experience in the CSL from the likes of Yu Hai and Davi. Despite having already played Guangzhou R&F, Beijing Guoan and city rivals Shenhua, they top of the league by a point and are fully deserving of that position.
And thus, in amongst the nostalgia of prodigal sons returning, there is more at stake on Friday night than the reception of Conca.
The tie will mark the season reaching its one third completion point—a milestone which has come quickly. Whoever wins the match will top the table and send out a real message to their rival. Psychologically, it could be a big moment in the season.
Conca is the headline and will continue to be long into next week. However, it is the subtext to this encounter which bears greater thought. SIPG have the chance to make Evergrande feel incredibly vulnerable and it is that opportunity which will be the footballing legacy of the game.
The king lives, but only in Shanghai exile and now he returns to unsettle the Evergrande state. Battle will commence on Friday evening, but this is a war which could continue for some time.
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