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Pub Talk: Evergrande go for number 5, SIPG pray, and the politics of CFA cup final dancing

The season is almost over, but the big prize is yet to be awarded. Your two pundits are back in the pub telling how it is. The big question of course is can Evergrande get the point they need at Gongti to win their 5th title in a row? Seems SIPG are set to get the 3 points they need to give themselves a chance. Elsewhere there’s CFA cup action to discuss, the ACL final, some confusion over ACL opponents, and the concept of the enemy of my enemy is my friend. In Beijing. Alright, let’s get on with it. Add your thoughts in the comments.

BC: We’re back in the pub after another brief period away and there couldn’t be a better time as the season comes to a close this weekend with the title still up for grabs, we also have the CFA Cup and ACL to talk about, lot’s on the table, so let’s get things started.

SU: Fire away

BC: So I think we should start with the drama between Evergrande and Shandong last weekend, unfortunately the drama we have this round is due to a very bad call that the CSL has admitted the referee got wrong.

SU: It must be hard for them to see clearly, what with their view being obscured by their own rectums, but I’m glad they didn’t make the situation worse by trying to pretend it didn’t happen.

BC: Openness is good, but is it just me or do you feel the league shouldn’t so openly make these kind of declarations? I think they should definitely do something about referees and/or linesmen who get calls this wrong, but this isn’t the first time they’ve come out and said “our referee got it wrong” and having been on that side of things before, it makes it all the more painful. Especially in a situation where the goal came in the final seconds, you’re admitting that the result of the match was downright wrong.

SU: I see what you are getting at, but being honest about such a big mistake is really the only course of action if you want people to keep taking you seriously. Honestly, I believe the standard of refereeing has gone backwards quite badly in recent years. I have tried to avoid saying that up until now, because it’s very subjective, but off the top of my head, over the last couple of years I have seen things like, a goal which crossed the line during a penalty shoot-out not being awarded, a player being called offside from a throw-in, and now this blatantly offside goal. Unfortunately that decision could barely have happened at a worse time.

BC: I don’t know how many times I’ve said it, but things are going in the right direction overall in the CSL, but it still seems that the refereeing hasn’t improved with everything else, in fact as you say it may even be getting worse, this is a big problem. If you’re an Evergrande fan, it’s probably not THAT big a deal because they’ll likely win the league this weekend, but as a Guoan fan, it really screwed my club over as it may be what keeps the side from the ACL.

SU: I agree the CSL has made great strides, but I think there’s little doubt they really have a problem with the refs. I don’t know what to suggest, I know mistakes can and do happen, but it seems to be there are result-changing wrong decisions made every other week, and now we have one which not only changed the result but could change the destination of the championship. I just want to see fair football and results not tarnished by any shenanigans or incompetent refereeing. Sucks for you lot indeed – however getting being 4-0 by Tianjin was one of the most shocking results of the season.

BC: Yes, getting hammered by Tianjin like that probably means we don’t deserve to go to the ACL. It was a pitiful effort, one of those matches that make you wonder if there’s something going on behind the scenes, especially considering how horrendous Yang Zhi’s goalkeeping was, it seemed like he was trying to give up goals.

SU: How was the game in general? I was pretty gobsmacked, especially considering how weak Tianjin have been this year.

BC: Guoan did as they do, keeping possession of the ball, passing it around, and not creating very much whereas Tianjin was very strong on the counterattack. Beijing looked out of sorts, especially their back four and Tianjin didn’t look all that bad. It was almost as if Guoan already gave up, forgetting they still have the ACL to play for

SU: Yes that was what made it shocking, Shandong getting knocked out of the CFA cup means they need to finish above Guoan. There’s a lot more to say about the top of the table and what’s going to happen this weekend, but we should wrap up last week’s action first, a lot of action at the other end of the table it seemed.

BC: Right, all the sides at the bottom gained points and all (other than Hangzhou) won, though there really weren’t any shocks in those matches, except maybe Shijiazhuang losing to Guizhou, as those sides were all going up against teams with nothing to play for.

SU: I was pretty surprised to see all four teams winning, that looked rather convenient, but I suppose at this time of year it’s life-or-death for the bottom dwellers.

BC: But other than Guizhou, they were all at home. Also, with the exception of Tianjin-Beijing, they were going up against sides that were only marginally better than them who had no motivation.

SU: That is certainly true in Liaoning-Shenhua’s case.

BC: Right, it’s also the case for R&F-Chongqing. It adds to the fun this weekend.

SU: So, staying at the bottom, how do you see it unfolding this Saturday?

BC: Well, Guizhou need to dig themselves out of a hole and depending on the other results, even a win may not be enough, so they would be the easy bet. Tianjin also seems like a side that would be likely to lose, but if they played as organized as they did against Beijing, they could be tough. It’s such a mess at the bottom and I’m not sure how it all computes out.

SU: Neither am I. R&F are safe though on account of their head-to-head record with Guizhou I am pretty sure.

BC: But I think all that changes if you have multiple teams tied on points and it is possible that 5 teams would be tied on points, which would really make things crazy.

SU: Is that so? I’m not going to pretend I know exactly how it all would pan out.

BC: Because my understand is if, say Guizhou win, Hangzhou tie, R&F lose and everyone else wins, then it puts those three teams on 31 points and so it would break down to the results between those sides and so it would be possible that the situation would change, but this is so complex with so many different possibilities I haven’t even seen the media really bother explaining it.

SU: I think you’re right, I think they basically make a mini-league computed from the results between all the teams involved, so that could in theory drag R&F into it. I might sit down and take a look at some of the results between those guys at the bottom but, we will only know for sure come Saturday. And it’s the CSL, so you never know when rule changes might suddenly occur or a team goes bust or what not. So we may not know for sure even then, hah ha.

BC: No matter what, it’s going to make for a lot of excitement, you have 7 of 8 matches where sides have something to play for, that makes for a great final day.

SU: Yes indeed, in fact I think only the Shenhua – Sainty game is the only match which is a true dead rubber with neither side having anything at stake.

BC: That’s the one, and even worse, those sides have two big matches coming up in the CFA Cup Final (more on that later I’m sure), so aren’t going to want to give anything up.

SU: Yeah I will be interested to see if Shenhua give youth a much-needed opportunity or just play 37-year-old totally past-it chainsmokers again, as usual.

BC: But it’s time to talk title, will Evergrande make it 5 straight?

SU: I think they have enough in their tank to get the point they need at Gongti, but I’m sure that’s the last place they want to go for such a vital point.

BC: That sums it up, SIPG have an easy one and will likely come away with all three points, so it comes down to if Evergrande can get a single point at Gongti and my feeling is that they will.

SU: I’d say that, although I’m sure most neutrals will be wanting SIPG to grab their first title, I think Evergrande are a much stronger team. I’m not particularly keen to see them win five in a row, however I’m certainly not going to pretend I want Shanghai International Port Group to win it.

BC: I think the recent head-to-head match between those two sides showed how much stronger Evergrande is. It’s unfortunate they are that far ahead of everyone in the CSL, but let’s just hope SIPG keeps improving as do some other sides and we have a similar conclusion to next year’s season.

SU: Evergrande for me have shown how much of a complete squad they really have. They spent large parts of the season without key players out, yet here they are on the verge of another league and ACL double. Even if they fail, they will still have had a very impressive season all things considered. But I think we have witnessed the end of Evergrande’s period of dominance, whatever happens next year they won’t run away with it.

BC: Definitely, the rest of the league has caught up and Evergrande is getting older. The side can be without pretty much anyone BUT Zheng Zhi and at 35, you have to wonder how many seasons he has left in him.

SU: He’s a pivotal player no doubt, he won’t be around for much longer. What I think the biggest change which has already happened is that the top clubs won’t be willing to sell domestic players to Evergrande, and we will see more competition amongst the top clubs to sign up the best players for lower in the league.

BC: Beijing and Shandong have been good about that all along, to me I think the biggest thing is that Evergrande have themselves so stocked it’s hard to convince someone to go there and potentially sit on the bench, they need a cleaning out before they can really bring in some new players. Plus, they have a very strong core that joined them in their mid 20s, but now a lot of those guys are getting closer to 30 and it will be interesting to see if the club stays loyal to them or lets them go to restock with younger talent. There are a few players who may have another season or two left in them, but not much beyond that at the top level.

SU: Agree. I think Evergrande will be ruthless though and let some guys go. I thought the new 25-player squad limit rule would have forced some top clubs to shed a few better players who weren’t getting a game, but somehow that didn’t seem to happen. Domestic Chinese players don’t seem to mind sitting on the bench from what I can see.

BC: The past two seasons have shown that there are a few sides that are ready to catch up to Evergrande, at least domestically, and so looking ahead its likely to just get better, though we have to get past Saturday first and see if they’ll be able to add another star.

SU: It’s hard to say what’s going to happen beyond this weekend, or even this weekend for that matter – particularly the bottom of the table. Next season will be even more interesting though. SIPG are clearly a top 4 force now. Shandong have had a good run and did themselves justice this season after all the doubt surrounding Cuca. What do you think of Guoan’s season and prospects?

BC: If they fail to make the ACL, Manzano should be fired. It’s been a very disappointing second half of the season and while things haven’t gotten ugly, I think things are being held together by a very thin string right now. It was a little surprising that Shao Jiayi announced his retirement today, I would have hoped he’d stay around for one more year (like it seems Zhou Ting and Xu Yunlong are) in hopes of winning something.

SU: Maybe it’s time for fresh blood man. Xu and Shao are clearly past their best. To me it Guoan had an odd season. I remember saying I felt they peaked last season on account of aging key players, but then in the first half of the season you guys really confounded that and were right up there. In fact, not to make a cheap shot (of course) but the defeat at Hongkou looked like a turning point in hindsight.

BC: Well, Shao has been pretty much confined to a bench role the past year or so and he is a great option to have for the final half hour of a match, I’d think he could have gone on in that role for at least another year, Xu is a different story. The whole month of July was a disaster for the club, what really started it was the CFA Cup loss to Beijing BG, but then the mess at Hongkou solidified it and their failure to beat SIPG and then losing to Guizhou made for a nightmare in the middle of the season

SU: That sounds like a dogs dinner indeed. Is there anyone promising in the youth ranks waiting to step up?

BC: No.

SU: I’m not surprised by that answer.

BC: That’s probably the simplest answer I’ve ever given in the pub, but it’s the truth, the “young” players right now are guys like Lei Tenglong and Zhang Xizhe who are 24, Manzano has completely avoided anyone from the youth team, though looking at the U23 squad, there isn’t much from Guoan, it seems like there is a decent generation coming up at U17 level, but that’s still someways off. If Guoan wants to improve this offseason, and they certainly need to, they are going to have to go outside and spend money.

SU: Sounds similar to Shenhua, the youth team being ignored completely, and the only back-up guys being “youngsters” in their mid-20s who have barely played any first team football. Seems there is a pattern.

BC: Shenhua is probably more dire because I don’t even think they have an academy of their own, plus there’s little excuse not to give some of your younger squad a chance once you know you are safe. For Guoan’s part, they’ve had something to play for all year and with the level of job stability in the CSL and knowledge of the players even in a manager’s own side, a youngster needs to really be a standout to get a shot. That said, the age of the back four against Tianjin was 36, 36, 30, and 24, that’s a problem… It also seems that much of the U23 talent in China right now is on the reserve or b side of European teams.

SU: Yes, I’m not sure that’s a good thing or not because I don’t know how much useful exposure they are really getting. Although it’s probably better than being a CSL player.

BC: Right, I don’t know how much of that is driven by their dreams or the lack of opportunity in the CSL. If you’re not going to play, why not sit on a bench in Europe instead of in China. Anyways, this is a topic for after the season, getting back to Evergrande, no matter what happens over the weekend, they have a lot more to play for later on this month.

SU: It’s amazing looking at the careers of random Chinese players, you find these guys who played for Latvian club’s reserves and stuff like that. Clubs are desperate to sign Chinese players for commercial reasons. Hopefully that can work in their favour. But yeah. the ACL final comes hot on the heels of the CSL season being over. I think they’d be favourites to win.

BC: I can’t say much about their opponents, but I think you’re right, I think Evergrande’s going to be adding at least one trophy to their case this season.

SU: No I have very little knowledge of their Saudi opponents either, which is not that surprising since this it is only in the final game of the season that we are seeing East Asia meeting West.

BC: Haha, their opposition Al-Ahli hails from the UAE and I believe plays in a stadium of less than 10,000 seats, that’s about all I know about them.

SU: What an ignoramus I am. Well that’s two more things you know than I do about the other ACL finalists.

BC: But you can be forgiven for your mistake as there is also a Saudi Al-Ahli, indeed, the two sides were drawn together during the group stage this year.

SU: Right, I thought Al-Ahli was a Saudi team, seems I was right, but just it’s the wrong Al-Ahli. If it was China these teams would have changed their names already.

BC: So enough of that cracking analysis I think, do you want to talk about the CFA Cup, at least the second leg of the semifinals?

SU: Ah yes the cup. Well, Shenhua dispatched Beijing Beikong without difficulty in the 2nd leg of the semi, which made me wonder why they struggled so badly in the first leg. I was amused to see a lot of Guoan fans at this game. What do you think of that?

BC: It was surprising how easily Shenhua dealt with Beijing BG, but they’ve had some struggles down the stretch this year, once again coming up short of promotion. I have no problem with fans coming out to watch, even support BG in this instance as hatred for Shenhua trumps everything, at least right now.

SU: I think its weird man. You might find a few part-time Shenhua fans supporting SIPG against Guoan, but I’d regard them as misguided at least.

BC: I don’t think it’s all that weird. First off, that’s not a valid comparison, I think if it was pre-CSL East Asia against Guoan in the same situation, you’d see plenty of Shenhua fans at the match. There is no reason for there to be a rivalry between Guoan and BG, they’ve only met on the field once in a competitive match, their side has a few former Guoan players (and a former manager), so there are ties between the clubs. Plus, the reality is that BG only gets around 2,000 fans for many of their matches, a lot of those are people who mainly support Guoan but love watching footie and have nothing better to do, so they show up to BG as well.

SU: That is all very true when you put it like that. However, it’s one thing to go along and watch the match in person simply because you want to see some live action, it’s another to wear the colours of another team and support a different team, although I suppose that adds to the fun of it for some at the Beikong game. I saw Tianjin fans in the Shenhua end at Gongti this year, although that’s different situation again.

BC: This is something that you see in the US too and I just don’t get it. I can kind of understand wearing a Guoan jersey to that match because you’re going as a Guoan fan to cheer against Shenhua, not for any other purpose, but I don’t get why people will go to a BG match against, say Hohhot, and wear their Guoan gear, but then you’ll also see people wearing Real Madrid or Bayern Munich or whatever, just because they think they’re going to a footie match so they should wear something that shows they like football.

SU: I don’t want to be judgmental or try and say there is a correct way and an incorrect way to follow teams, plus I respect people who make the effort to get up off their asses and go to the stadium to watch the game. But I think all of this is related to football culture here being relatively new in general and brand new to a lot of people who just got into their local team recently.

BC: Right, well, going back when I saw the draw, I talked about how Shenhua had a shot to go to the finals, I am still shocked it came true though, and it will be fun in that you lot are going up against a “local” rival in Jiangsu, who went through much easier than expected

SU: I am surprised Shenhua haven’t managed to stuff it up yet as well. However they may be saving up a horror show for a more dramatic stage. Shenhua haven’t had the hardest of roads to the final, although the classic derby against SIPG was definitely a tough game. Sainty are indeed the Yangtze Delta Derby opponents, that is always something of a lop-sided rivalry, although it will add to the occasion. Shenhua have never won in Nanjing ever, now would be a good time to rectify that.

BC: Yeah, from the start the only match that looked like it would be tough was SIPG and Shenhua got through that in dramatic fashion. The fact Jiangsu is back in the final seems the biggest shock to me, I’d never have guessed that, though their first CSL opponent in the cup was Shandong, which made for a very easy run.

SU: Indeed, incredibly both Sainty and Shenhua have only met one CSL opponent on their way to the final, that’s quite eye-opening.

BC: Definitely, I didn’t realize that was also the case with Shenhua until you mentioned it. So you want to call an end to this discussion or is there something else on your mind?

SU: I think we’ve covered a lot of ground this week. There’s be an awful lot to talk about next time!

BC: Definitely, and hopefully we’ll bring you an actual talking version!

SU: Indeed, let’s hope so!

BC: Cheers mate!

SU: Cheers, till next time.


Who do you think is going to win the league? What do you think of Shandong’s offiside goal which kept the trophy out of Evergrande’s hands? Let us know in the comments below!

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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