SIPG FC make the short trip to Yangtze River Delta neighbours Hangzhou Greentown this Sunday as the CSL’s only remaining unbeaten club. Having made short shrift of the challenge of the thoroughly disliked Henan Jianye in a straightforward 3-0 win last weekend, the reds go into round 8 sitting 3 points clear of second placed Guangzhou Evergrande
SIPG correspondent Andy Strong once again assesses the recent talking points surrounding the club, and looks ahead to the weekend’s action.
Conca’s importance to his side now unquestionable as Shanghai derby approaches
Despite this weekend’s outing to Hangzhou, it is fair to suggest that SIPG fans are instead preoccupied with the following weekend’s clash with city rivals, Shanghai Shenhua. The city has been buzzing in the build up to the first Shanghai derby this year, with supporters of both sides very publicly nailing their colours to the mast both on social media and on the streets of the city, with a larger number of club-branded merchandise than ever to be spotted adorning the backs of Shanghai’s vast population.
As far as the game itself goes, the run of play looks very much set to be dictated via a battle of each team’s number 10’s – as SIPG’s prodigious trequartista, Dario Conca faces off against the equally talismanic Gio Moreno – not to mention Shenhua’s other marquee number 10, Tim Cahill (who in fact wears his favoured number 17).
As Moreno stole the headlines last weekend thanks to an outrageous bicycle kick scored directly from a corner, his SIPG counterpart , despite going another game without a goal, turned in another vastly improved performance against the visiting Henan Jianye. Conca’s metronomic passing and effortless composure in possession allowed the midfielder to determine the pace of the game often almost single handedly, as he barely put a foot wrong over the whole 90 minutes.
Whilst there is undoubted ability throughout this current SIPG squad, the diminutive Argentinian remains the one player who can create something out of nothing. With the ball at his feet, any inch of space can seemingly be masterfully crafted into a 5 yard head start on the opposition; any half chance marvellously contorted into a genuine goal threat. His squirming manoeuvre in the build up to Wu Lei’s goal – though a little fortunate – provided just one of a number of examples of such attacking threat.
Despite a somewhat slow (by his own astronomical standards) start to the season, it seems Shanghai’s $6 million man may have found form at just the right time.
SIPG a different side with Davi in the team
The upturn in performance of last Sunday’s clash with Henan, in comparison to the visit of Chongqing the previous week, owes much to the return from injury of Shanghai’s Brazilian midfielder, Davi. Whilst Yu Hai was charged with performing the role in his absence – a task he undertook neatly, if a little too discreetly – Davi was sitting out his third match in succession after an injury-hit start to the season.
Nonetheless, returning to the side against Henan, and rekindling his central midfield partnership with the formidable Cai Huikang, Shanghai were able to carve out a number of opportunities, with those two as the nucleus of team. If the aforementioned Conca is considered the keystone of the side, then SIPG’s first choice midfield pairing are without doubt the foundations.
Indeed the fast-break counterattacking style seemingly favoured by coach Sven-Göran Eriksson relies on the individual strengths of these two working in tandem – Cai patrols in front of the back four, disrupting any opposition attack, while Davi mops up and sets his team up to get forward. Performing this roaming playmaker role, Davi is able to collect the ball from anchorman Cai, and either instantly deliver it wide, or drive forward himself, interlinking with Conca on the edge of the opposition penalty area.
It is no surprise that Davi’s reintegration into the team coincided with a clean sheet and a drastically improved attacking display. Provided his early injury troubles can be put firmly behind him, SIPG certainly possess the tools to mount a sustained title bid with this solid core.
Wu Lei finally off the mark as he adjusts to new position
SIPG fans finally blew a collective sigh of relief as Wu Lei sealed the win over Henan with a well placed finish from 15 yards out on Sunday. Wu’s somersault celebration (complete with slapstick slip on landing) betrayed his own relief and pent up frustrations over having taken so long to find the back of the net in the current campaign.
Given the multitude of column inches devoted to the ‘Chinese Maradona’ over the past few years, for a player who bagged 15 goals in his first season in the CSL, Wu must start justifying the hype that perpetually surrounds him. With just 1 goal and 1 assist in 7 outings this year, his output has obviously diminished, however, there is some justification for this drop in number to be found in his recently adjusted role within the team.
Prior to the 2015 campaign, Wu had found himself positioned largely behind the central striker, allowing him opportunities to shoot in and around the box, and provide those around him with similar options. In his new position out wide, such openings are limited, and he is now obliged to track back and provide cover down the right flank in defence.
However, despite his status as the side’s star man now diminished, thanks to the likes of Conca and Davi, his manager claimed he was still as important as ever. “I never have to worry about him,” Eriksson told this week’s press conference, “I believed his goal would be just a matter of time. His role in the team is irreplaceable.”
First clean sheet in 3 secured with yet another different back four
Despite the multitude of injuries and suspensions disrupting the SIPG back four this season, Sven’s side have conceded just four goals in their opening 7 fixtures – the best defensive record in the league.
Against Henan, Sven opted to move Wang Shenchao into the centre of defence alongside Wang Jiajie, affording Fu Huan his first appearance of the season on the right. The makeshift pairing looked somewhat disjointed early on, and would have allowed Mateusz Zachara a clear run on goal after only 2 minutes; were it not for the linesman’s flag.
While the two did settle as the game progressed, it was Fu Huan who caught the eye, looking organised and assured when defending (something that was often an issue last year) and making an excellent goal line clearance with the scores at 0-0.
Nevertheless, Henan’s glaring impotence in final third – epitomised by Javier Patiño’s slip in the box when clear through on goal – went some way to ensuring the points went to Shanghai. On this evidence, SIPG will need their first choice defenders to turn out regularly if they are to keep out less wasteful opposition, particularly with crucial ties against Shenhua, Guangzhou Evergrande and Shandong Luneng approaching in May.
Preview & Prediction
SIPG journey southwest this Sunday to face Hangzhou Greentown in their final game before the Shanghai derby. Having drawn the same fixture last year, few would expect SIPG not to better that result this time around.
Hangzhou have a number of talented young domestic players amongst their ranks, however things have not gone as expected so far this year. One such promising individual was Shi Ke, who joined SIPG from Greentown in the winter transfer window. Shi is still yet to play a single minute of the 2015 campaign, but is highly rated due to his impressive Olympic team performances, and is sure to be welcomed back with open arms once he returns to full fitness. Unfortunately, he is unlikely to feature at his old club this weekend – despite recent updates on his injury suggesting he is close to a return to action.
The host’s start to 2015 has been underwhelming to say the least, notching up just one win – at newly promoted Chongqing. In their defence, Philippe Troussier’s side have had a difficult run of opening fixtures; unfortunately for them I can’t see it getting any easier this week. 0-2.