SIPG FC rose to the top of the CSL on Thursday evening, having sealed a third comeback victory in their last 3 games. Coming off the back of two dramatic turnarounds against Guangzhou R&F – both at home in the cup last week, and in last Sunday evening’s last-gasp 3-2 victory at Yuexiushan – and winning their 7th game in a row, Sven-Göran Eriksson’s side look to be making a sustained shot at the championship.
Having watched title-chasing rivals, Beijing, Guangzhou and Shandong all drop points on Wednesday night, Shanghai went into the game knowing a win would put them back on top of the pile. However, with the home side continuing their recent habit of conceding first in a game in which they are widely expected to win, it appeared briefly as though this would be another missed opportunity to demonstrate their championship credentials.
Pre-match talk had focused heavily on team and indeed squad selection, with questions lingering over the club’s indecision with regards to which of the side’s foreign contingent would be sacrificed for SIPG’s new record signing, Asamoah Gyan. Having fired his way into the upper echelons of the CSL scoring charts, it would have seemed inconceivable during the early season that the board would allow Tobias Hysén to depart the club. However, his continued absence from the side due to injury, combined with winger Jean Kouassi’s impressive recent performances, has raised doubts over exactly how the board plan to work around their surplus of foreigners.
With Kouassi still only 20, and seemingly with a bright future ahead of him, it seems most likely he will be the one cut adrift, with rumours of a loan move to a fellow CSL side circulating over recent days. The Ivorian’s absence from the squad here gave further credence to the suggestion that that particular decision had been all but made.
Thus with both Hysén and Kouassi missing from the side, Shanghai lined up with Yu Hai filling in the role of lone striker, with support from Lv Wenjun and Wu Lei on the left and right flank respectively. While Yu’s effort in the role could not be questioned, with the winger hassling and harrying the Tianjin defence all night, his efficacy in leading the line and carving out chances for himself and those around him was limited. And while the home side struggled to really maintain any cohesion in attack, the visitors actually looked the more likely to break the deadlock.
Despite Shi Ke and Kim Joo-Young’s burgeoning defensive partnership improving with every game, Tianjin’s Hernán Barcos, sitting in front of supporting trio; Cristian Tănase, Wagner and Hu Rentian, combined well to cause them some concern early on.
Indeed Wagner’s lively contribution dictated much of the first half, and the Brazilian was instrumental in putting his side 1-0 up after 36 minutes. His quick free kick was chipped into the Shanghai box and, while Sun Xiang was first to the ball, his sloppy header back to Yan Junling was pounced on by Barcos as he shirked the challenge of Shi Ke and deftly lobbed the stranded Yan. The manner of the goal summed up a rather miserable first half for the home side.
Nonetheless, whilst the reds’ fans spent half time mulling over a frustrating first half against a compact but one-dimensional Tianjin side, SIPG’s newest headline signing; the newly anointed 6th highest earner in world football, Asamoah Gyan, was preparing to make his club debut. And what a debut it was.
Gyan entered the field as the two sides reemerged for the second half to a febrile reception from the home faithful. The Ghanaian’s impact was almost immediate; his energetic and incisive running instantly causing the Tianjin back four more problems than they had faced throughout the first 45 minutes.
The new man’s first major contribution came in the 57th minute after Wu Lei slipped a well-timed through ball through to Gyan on the left hand side of the 6 yard box. Gyan’s first touch took the ball well away from Tianjin goalkeeper, Du Jia, who caught the forward’s boot with his outstretched hand, bringing him tumbling to the floor. While there was some debate over who should take the spot kick – the new man clearly desperate to mark his debut with a goal – Davi eventually stepped up and dispatched the penalty with some comfort.
While the Ghanaian captain was unable to open his SIPG goalscoring account on this occasion, it was not long before he got his wish, with Wu Lei once more the provider. Allowed too much time and space on the ball, Wu played a delightful lofted ball across the box to the onrushing Gyan, whose diving header flew past Du to put his side 2-1 up and on their way to the top of the table.
SIPG’s winning streak now extends to 7 in all competitions, having recovered spectacularly from their four game winless run back in May. They now face 3 games on the road, starting with a tough trip to Beijing, in a clash that could go some way to determining where the CSL title will end up this year. They then return to Shanghai on 16th August for the visit of Hangzhou Greentown, before the big double header against Shanghai Shenhua in both the cup and league in the week thereafter.
It all looks set to be a defining couple of months ahead for SIPG; if they can carry on in the same form, with the same determination and ruthlessness as shown in recent weeks, then they can head into the final stretch of the season confident of staying firmly in contention for the title. So as things look good on the pitch, all that remains to be seen off it, is how the club will resolve their currently overstocked foreign cohort.
Whilst the signing of Gyan was arguably more a statement by the club in the face of big name signings being made elsewhere in the division, the forward’s goalscoring record in the (admittedly rather uncompetitive) Arabian Gulf League was outstanding – tallying 95 goals in just 83 games – and will undoubtedly help Shanghai step up another level in their ongoing quest for the CSL title.
Although attack was probably the area that needed strengthening the least, and with the question of who will make way for the newcomer, as well as accusations of Gyan simply being a mercenary and a superfluous buy on behalf of the board, if his debut showing is anything to go on, he could just be the extra impetus needed to put his side ahead in the title race. And he certainly won’t be another Nicolas Anelka.