An at-times tumultuous season ended in both domestic and continental glory for the Canton Tigers.
Often a team can be caught up in a whirlwind of its own doing, but there still exists an apparent telos that will reveal, in the end, that victory was simply inevitable. This would appear to be true of Guangzhou Evergrande Taobao’s recently concluded CSL season. A myriad of changes and a few uncomfortable results aside, it will appear from hindsight that there was only one pre-determined fate this year: champions of China. However, a look to the next season suggests there could be a different story in the near future.
The kind of change brought about the club in the last half decade could have resulted in a multitude of different endings. The influx of money off the field, quality on the field, personalities in the dressing room and marketing clout over the team could have derailed the project at any number of junctures. A roll of the dice and an opening of the wallet in the beautiful game is still about as random and effective as testing Pandora ’s box. Fortunately for the men in red, it has paid dividends yet again.
Out with the three-time champion as manager, and in with a man whose pedigree includes one World Cup, numerous domestic successes, countless individual awards and a proclivity for going above and beyond what his height might otherwise indicate. Fabio Cannavaro was likeable, even lovable, but obviously expendable mid-season in the eyes of the owners. So often in the world of soccer we use the word “cruel” to describe managerial changes, and in this situation it could not be more apt. Whether one views it as justified or not, it nonetheless opened the door for Big Phil to win his first title in China.
Off the field, the 40% acquisition of the club by Alibaba was brought about in the swiftest of manners — signed, sealed and delivered over dinner and a few drinks. The pressure behind a club with the financial backing and entrepreneurial weight of such companies cannot be understated. Many clubs from across the globe have withered in the limelight. For this squad, however, the extra load of the unwieldy, yet surprisingly charming name of Evergrande Taobao managed to rock the boat only a bit.
The season commenced with a flurry of transfer activity, as well. With the renowned Italian pair of Alessandro Diamanti and Alberto Gilardino out and the Brazilians Alan and Ricardo Goulart in, it paved the way from the start for their compatriot Scolari to join their ranks after just 13 rounds into the season. Though Alan suffered an ACL tear in training early on and contributed little to the domestic campaign, he could still yet prove a pivotal figure in the coming years. Even so, Goulart and Elkeson (along with the Chinese striker Lin Gao) have managed to bag 39 goals between them in the league and 50 in all competitions.
A litany of injury problems plagued the squad with Zeng Cheng’s 39th-minute injury in the second leg of the AFC Champions League final just a microcosm of the season. The most glaring of consistent omissions from the weekly starting IX was Zhang Linpeng himself, who’s absence in the early stages of the campaign probably made life rough for the first time Guangzhou manager, Cannavaro. Then there was Elkeson, whose 28 goals in 28 league games last season certainly was always going to be a hard mark to better, but was made an even more insurmountable task given his injury issues.
Indeed, it was a gamble and risk well taken when selected at the end of the season over Robinho as the international allotment. Only starting a third of the league games and just appearing in roughly half, it mattered not as soccer fans memories are so often fleeting. The lasting memory of this season is not a league tally, but rather three short moments: a flick, a meg, and a tidy, outside-of-the-foot finish, with a shiny new trophy to share.
Then there was the injury to Zou Zheng early in March Chongqing that looked it could yet again derail Cannavaro’s aspirations, but he too managed to only miss 12 starts in the league in defense. It cannot be understated the toll injuries can take on a team, especially spread threadbare across multiple fronts domestically and abroad. Midweek trips across East Asia certainly can run a team ragged, so the team performed incredibly well given its injury concerns and continental duties.
The third round defeat to Xinjiang Dabancheng Nahuan in the Chinese FA Cup and the 2-1 loss to Henan Jianye early in the season might be viewed as mere blips domestically, but a string of three victories in the AFC Champions League group stage was followed with four poor results. Isolating the league campaign, the smattering of ties in the first half did not appear to have warranted Cannavaro’s departure, but in context, these results marred his tenure. Some well-timed goal scoring by Goulart and Elkeson in the early part of the season saved the team from more embarrassments, against the likes of Liaoning Whowin, Jiangsu Sainty and Shanghai Shenhua. Lin Gao and Goulart combined to equal Michel’s brace in the first Guangzhou derby and share the spoils, while Evergrande Taobao managed a 2-1 win in the reverse fixture.
A blatant offside call was shockingly missed against Shandong Luneng in the penultimate game leading to a stoppage time equalizer, which resulted in any unnecessarily tense final day for the Canton Tigers. But a 2-0 victory over their northern rivals secured the points before Sven-Goran Ericksson could even get a sniff of the trophy.
Throughout the season, consistent play helped guide the team forward. Aside from the aforementioned players in attack, performances could be praised all over. With a noteworthy 11 clean sheets to his name, Zeng Cheng was a solid presence between the pipes, while Fang Mei and Xiaoting Feng provided a stable base in front of him. The ever-present Linpeng Zhang showed once again (when he was actually on the field) why he has garnered so much attention from European giants. The central pair of captain Zhi Zheng and the revelation that was Paulinho proved to be the cure going down the stretch. The new signings of Paulinho and Goulart have proved they were worth their weight in gold.
The somewhat rocky campaign this season from the Canton Tigers begs the question: has the gap closed at the top albeit a fifth consecutive title? Looking at the statistics, it may appear so. Only twice in the five year their reign has Guangzhou had an absolutely commanding lead over second, and in three of the season, it was a margin of two, three and four points. Furthermore, this was the only season in which the third place team was even within 8 points of the top, suggesting a tighter field. Looking at the total weeks at the top of the table can also reveal just how much closer this campaign was. The previous 4 seasons, Guangzhou averaged 25 weeks at the summit, and this season a mere nine.
Furthermore, in three of the seasons Guangzhou managed the final two-thirds of the season in first, and in 2012 a loss to Qingdao was the only blip at the end of the season, ending a stranglehold that would have otherwise appeared similarly all-conquering. Lastly, in the previous three seasons, only two or three teams had a share of the lead at any given point in the season and only in the very early stages, and there were only two or three overall lead changes, this season was much more tumultuous with a total of nine lead changes and ten teams having a share of first. While this isn’t particullarly statistically significant, it does show a bit more noise at the top of the table, and in conjunction with the aforementioned statistics, appears the Canton Tigers grip on the trophy may just be slipping a bit.
|Weeks in First||24||23||28||28||9|
|Margin of Victory (pts.)||14||4||18||3||2|
|Total Teams in First||4||3||2||3||5|
However, soccer is not a game merely of numbers and statistics, and so a more subjective approach may also prove the same point. Swift managerial changes at the end of the season at Beijing and Shanghai Greenland Shenhua suggest a wave of change at the top as well. In addition, as both Chinese and Western media report, Shandong Luneng have offered an outrageous offer for former Brazil head coach, Mano Menezes which would suggest that other Chinese clubs are looking to Guangzhou’s blueprint to find world class talent to steer their ship, not just to row it. This means that the three teams nipping at Guangzhou’s heels this year are all actively seeking to narrow the gap or eclipse it.
Then there is the issue of Zhang Linpeng on loan to Real Madrid. English media originally reported a hiccup in regards to non-EU players receiving a work visa, and so this story eventually went cold. Naturally, because of the relation between Real Madrid and the Guangzhou Academy, rumors emerged last summer over a link between the 26 year-old Chinese defender and the Spanish giants. Some in the club dismissed the report as hearsay, but often where there’s smoke, there’s fire. In addition to this link, the Spanish club also inked its first sponsorship deal in China with Luyuan earlier in 2015, and it’s abundantly clear the opportunity The Middle Kingdom can offer for a club like Real Madrid.
It appears the club has the player’s interests at heart by insisting on a clause in the contract guaranteeing play time. It is a well-worn story of players coming from traditional soccer outsiders, and then stifling any further growth by sitting on the bench at a tier one club. It is not an unfounded fear that Guangzhou worry about Zhang’s development. However, Chinese media seem to agree, that although the big name move is a good thing for the game in China, they welcome the idea with great trepidation.
Although last summer there was a lot of contact between Guangzhou and Chelsea, they couldn’t come to agreement on any of their demands (namely, a same price buy-back, guarantee of play time, a loan deal from Guangzhou, or a guaranteed work permit) and thus the deal fell through. Even the focus of Western media at times, a FourFourTwo article midseason revealed the distraction this type of move can make. However, from the perspective months later as champions of Asia, it is a further testament to his character that his focus didn’t sway.
Further, transfers have yet to come fast, but rumors always linger on the horizon. With Man City’s dipping of their feet into China, there’s no telling what kind of investment they might make, with them already staking claims in teams across America, Australia and Japan. This is certainly a story worth paying attention to. There is also wild speculation in the coming years for Wayne Rooney to make his debut in the Far East, but that may be a knee-jerk reaction to his poor season so far. However, with a former Three Lions manager in charge of Shanghai SIPG, it might prove wise to be not so dismissive of the report.
In short, success breeds success, winning begets winning, and on that front Guangzhou Evergrande Taobao did nothing but triumph. The Elkeson winner in the last game of the season did nothing but put another milestone on a project over five years running and counting. While it may seem the competition is catching up, as this season wasn’t as all conquering domestically as it has been in years past, it speaks volumes that they came through when it mattered most. When it came time to prove their value, there was only one team that can say they were champions. Though the field may have caught up, competition only pushes the greats. There’s nothing to suggest a second consecutive hat trick of titles is not looming on the horizon for this club.