By 9:23 on the evening of Saturday 17th October, all hope was lost. Faced with what, from the outset, appeared to be the rather straightforward task of beating an attractive, but ultimately weaker visiting Shijiazhuang side, SIPG FC somehow contrived to twice throw away a one goal advantage in front of their own fans, thanks to some truly amateurish and naive defending. Who would have imagined that less than a fortnight later SIPG would head into match day 30 of the 2015 CSL season with a realistic shot of snatching the title from league leaders, Guangzhou Evergrande?
The worst thing about that tie with Shijiazhuang was the sheer predictability of it all. On too many occasions this season, when expectations have been raised and markers of progress can be laid out for all to see, Sven Göran-Eriksson’s side have contrived only to compromise their title credentials, and leave themselves with still much to prove. Given his side’s profligacy at several crucial moments in the 2015 campaign, questions must again be asked of the ostensibly fragile mindset that exists amongst his squad.
Nonetheless, as events have transpired, this Saturday’s final home clash with Lioaning is far from a dead rubber, with many thanks due to Wang Yongpo of Shandong Luneng, whose last minute equaliser against Guangzhou last weekend meant that SIPG jumped to within two points of their South China title rivals, having comfortably beaten Changchun Yatai 2-0 in the northeast on the same day.
It should also be noted that, as far as Shanghai are concerned, a considerable amount of gratitude is also due to the match officials present at Tianhe, as quite how Wang’s goal was adjudged to be onside really is beyond comprehension. Still, to the legions of SIPG fans both watching on television and packed into the away end at imaginatively named Development Area Stadium, the result – and its subsequent ramifications – was all that mattered.
All of which of course means that Saturday’s home tie with Liaoning Whowin could now end in the red half of Shanghai being crowned 2015 CSL champions. While nothing less than a win will do for Shanghai to stand any chance of snatching the title, reds fans will also have a keen eye focused on events in the capital – where Beijing Guoan take on Guangzhou Evergrande – willing the league leaders to suffer defeat for only the second time this season.
Fortunately for Sven’s side, having fallen to a remarkable 4-0 defeat at relegation candidates Tianjin TEDA last week, Beijing must now better the result of Shandong (themselves facing off against Shijiazhuang) to stand any chance of qualifying for next season’s Asian Champions League. Whatever the outcome, October 31st promises to provide a few more shocks and frights than usual along the way.
While it is difficult to make a truly convincing case for justifying SIPG as worthy 2015 CSL winners, given the nature of some of their performances at a number of crucial points in the campaign (September’s 3-0 rolling over at home to Evergrande, and the aforementioned 2-2 draw with Shijiazhuang being prime examples), the fact that the side are still in with a chance of finishing in first place is still testament to the vast progress made by the club in the three years since being promoted.
While their will undoubtedly be (chiefly Hongkou-based, blue-tinted-spectacle-wearing) observers who will bemoan the money spent on the team and it’s effect in pushing the side to within one game of taking the crown, the fact remains that the club’s fortunes have been on an upward trajectory since its very inception.
Having finished 5th last year, in only their second top-flight campaign (before said expenditure began), in 2015 the club supplemented the homegrown core of the side with greater foreign talent, and have been rewarded for doing so effectively. Coupled with the obvious fact that several other CSL clubs have spent similar amounts only to fall short in recent times, it would seem churlish – and indeed inaccurate – to suggest that the SIPG have simply bought their way to the top.
Still, if further progress is to be made next year, Sven Göran-Eriksson must ensure that his side’s defensive organisation is much improved. The head coach must also look into the issue of game management and the best way to approach certain fixtures, to avoid throwing away points when the pressure is on. Nevertheless, regardless of what transpires this weekend, SIPG can look back fondly on yet another year of progress. The minimum target this year was to achieve Champions League qualification. With that already in the bag and having provided the primary competition in a largely one-sided title race for much of the campaign, there is much to be proud of at Shanghai Stadium.