In a game featuring Jackson Martinez and Paulinho in their first AFC Champions League game with a sea of familiar faces in the lineup, avid Guangzhou fans and neutrals alike were left bored.
The whistle blew, the game started, and unfortunately no one was there to see it. The game was played to an empty stadium due to a litany of wrongdoings regarding last year’s final, such as filming Al Alhi training sessions and failing to observe the commercial rights of AFC sponsors. This may have been for the better, as a drab affair fell upon fewer eyes.
Asian Champions League Group H
Guangzhou Evergrande 0
Pohang Steelers 0
The game opened with an immediate long ball to Martinez, and unfortunately this proved more often than not the best route forward. Neat and tidy play was far and few between, but when it did surface, it was rather appealing to the observer and offered a few looks at goal. As this was just the first competitive game of the season, they can be forgiven for the lack of sharpness, and these glimpses of quality will hopefully increase in due time.
Both teams struggled for the first 20 minutes, with the most noteworthy moment a lame penalty appeal by the Canton Tigers. They’d have to wait just 5 minutes later when a foolish foul on Paulinho led to delightful Zheng Long cross from the resulting free kick finding Goulart wide open in the box, but he misplayed an easy side footed volley from close range.
While Paulinho and captain Zheng Zhi helped form a base in the middle of the park, they were often well out of position. The front six were very mobile, perhaps considered fluid when they actually connected, but really were simply amorphous. Often times Goulart came well deep to ask for a pass, while Paulinho released high into no man’s land, in addition to Zhang Linpeng over committing in attack at times.
Wingers didn’t hold their shape, the team lacked a consistent presence in the middle, and runs forward were often wayward. It appeared hapless at times, and Big Phil’s endless gestures on the side line, squeezing his arms together indicated they were neither organized in attack , nor compact in transition.
This left them vulnerable on the counter, with Pohang able to march from box to box with ease at times. Unfortunately an absolute dearth of quality in the final third left each rare move as fruitless as the last. Several giveaways by Guangzhou left them outnumbered on the break, but the Korean visitors could only muster long distance shots to the stands. Unfortunately no fans were in Row Z to retrieve the balls.
Most of the play in the first half was long balls to Martinez and his long day continued as his tally of fouls increased. In all, Guanzhou had the better of the first half. The introduction of Yu Hanchao at half injected a bit of energy into the attack. A turn in traffic, a cute dribble and some dogged pressure on the flank in the opening minutes of the first half caused an uptick in tempo.
In the second half, Zhang Linpeng got forward in a more effective and shrewd role in the second period contributing to some crosses and the few moves the second half had. Zheng Zhi proved the most consistent on the field dictating most of the play, while Goulart was easily the most creative cutting in and out and putting in a hard-working performance.
He had a 59th minute shot from distance that was dropping fast, but not quick enough, but he wouldn’t have to wait long for the next chance.
Yu continued his effective performance with taking a long diagonal into the box down deftly with his chest, in stride for Goulart to volley, but he unfortunately struck it straight at the keeper.
When Gao Lin came on, he immediately ran forward from the ensuing thrown in and never looked back. The 6’2” forward and Martinez generally lined up on the Pohang backline for the remainder of the match, which actually opened pockets for some neat interchange in the middle, including one cutback by Zhang Linpeng that Martinez quite couldn’t take down.
Being a €42m signing from Atletico Madrid in the midst of a CSL winter spending spree, Martinez was always going to be the subject of intense scrutiny. He was generally poor, but that can be attributed to having been acquired merely two weeks ago, as well as having to adjust to a new team and country. Several giveaways, poor touches and fouls can sum up the day. However, he could have turned this around with a last second chance, with the first attempt saved by Shin Hwa-yong at point blank range bouncing right back to his feet, and defender Kim Kwang-suk blocking the follow-up off the line.
It was a game dominated in large part by Guangzhou, with the only real chances falling to those in red. Lack of organization by the Canton Tigers led to many outnumbered counter-attacks by the visitors, but they couldn’t muster much out of those. It was not a terrible start to the season for the Canton Tigers, and so the few bright spots show that there is much to work with this season.