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Pub Talk: The names change but the Chinese football game remains the same + Shanghai Derby dominates

Like salmon returning from the Atlantic, leaping up whitewater rapids to spawn in a Scottish loch, your wondering pundits are back in the Pub after a long hiatus. The beer is still flowing, but an awful lot has changed since last time. Or has it? Your original Chinese football commentators find themselves in something of a more crowded room. On the chat list this week – muppets, beer, politics, strange sendings off, big name signings and shock first week results. There’s also time to discuss THE big game this weekend, the Shanghai Derby, as the football finally takes centre stage in China. How will your duo tackle all that? Read on to find out.

BC: Hello, stranger, mate, it’s been a long time since we were last here, feels a little foreign to be back, but the cold beer brings me right back home.

SU: Yes hello there, it’s been a long time indeed, I’ve been gasping for a pub beer for quite a while, what say you?

BC: So much has changed since we last talked, our beloved league has gone upscale overnight. Fortunately our beloved pub is keeping the beers cheap, no “CSL price” here…

SU: You’re absolutely right! The beers, and banter, will remain cheap and free-flowing in our pub. But the CSL has undergone quite a transformation it seems.

BC: We are the original curmudgeons it seems, like the 2 old guys in the balcony on the muppets except with beer…It’s certainly made this off-season interesting and brought a lot of attention to the league, but it’s hard to say if this will be good or not for league development, especially as it’s only a handful of clubs who have big money. I think we’ll see further divisions in the talent.

SU: Yeah that is a good comparison, there are those regular readers who would say we are simply a pair of muppets beer or not, but, there’s so much to talk about I’m not sure where to begin. I tend to think not that much has changed in reality, certainly not as much as the outside world thinks, basically we have more, bigger and better foreigners compared with before. However, the amount of money being splashed out is what has made the rest of the world sit up and notice.

BC: I think there are a lot of roads we can go down, about the connection (or lack thereof) between the money and grassroots football, money and politics, or what is really driving it, maybe we can hash through those issues in a few weeks when the league goes on break, to me I think for the sake of this pub, we should get right into the football and see how that big money did on the pitch last weekend.

SU: Yes the actual football is what is not being talked about much elsewhere. Well, quite a surprising round all in all, the two most fancied teams beaten, Jiangsu gubbing Shandong was a surprise to me, Shenhua very fortunate to avoid defeat to newly promoted Yanbian. Those were the remarkable results last weekend for me.

BC: I think you leave out the most remarkable results of all, with Chongqing defeating Guangzhou Evergrande and, to a lesser extent, Henan taking down Shanghai SIPG. But let’s start in Nanjing, where over 48,000 showed up for the season opener.

SU: Ah, those are the results I was getting at when I said the two most fancied teams, that is the two sides who finished in the top two this year, and I think most would expect a similar top pairing this year.

BC: Yes, indeed, my bad there…Anyways, the big match was certainly the one in Nanjing, I think we both expect Jiangsu and Shandong to be around the top of the table, but Jiangsu struggled in the ACL and the Super Cup, however the side put in a dominant performance on Saturday night, handily beating Shandong.

SU: Yeah it was an impressive win by Jiangsu (I keep wanting to say Sainty still), Teixeira instantly showed why they shelled out 50 million Euros for him with two very good goals, Ramirez also got on the scoresheet, the ACL and super cup games served Jiangsu well for getting their team in shape for the CSL.

BC: Right, I kind of expected it would take a little longer, but it seems they have things fixed, at least those two really stood out individually in a way we haven’t seen yet.

SU: I can’t think of a time when big signings delivered almost immediately. But as we know in the CSL, a lot of the time, foreigners have a honeymoon period where they play really well at first, only to get bogged down and distracted later as they get disillusioned with their surroundings, team-mates, club or whatever, as they stay in China longer.

BC: It was a great performance for Suning and I think they really needed it. It serves as an early statement that they’re serious about competing. For Shandong, on the subject of foreigners making a difference, I think Gil did very well in the back four, despite the scoreline.

Yeah I am just surprised a team like Shandong, which in the playing squad has maintained pretty good continuity, wasn’t able to offer up a better show against Jiangsu, for all their big signings, usually it takes things a while to click, as we said perhaps the ACL and Supercup games was all Jiangsu needed.

BC: Personally, I’m not so worried about Shandong, though they’ve had a tendency to be a slow starter. They’ve done well in their ACL matches to date, I think it was more Jiangsu really being up for this one in front of a huge home crowd. This match being in Jiangsu and considering their early season struggles, I would have been more worried if they lost this. I imagine Shandong will regroup this week.

SU: Yes. Well the biggest surprise of last week certainly happened in Chongqing, I must admit I didn’t see that one coming, Evergrande beat Chongqing 7-0 last year, but last weekend they went down 2-1.

BC: Talk about needing to regroup! This indeed was a huge surprise. Chongqing was one of the sides that made some changes, bringing in new foreigners, but didn’t make any moves that saw their name splashed across world papers, however it looks like they were smart and really focused on their needs. This was another situation where we saw an incredibly crowd of over 48,000 show up to take in this upset.

SU: That was a really impressive crowd indeed, in fact I think Chongqing had an average of around 40,000 last year which is absolutely great for a team which historically has always struggled in the CSL, I saw the highlights from the match and Fernandinho did the business for Chongqing with two counter-attack goals, I can imagine Scholari was not amused by his defence.

BC: Yeah, I think they got the fear of God last season when they almost lost their side and from the first match they were impressive all last season and that carried over this year. On the pitch, Fernandinho looked like the real deal, but Evergrande had plenty of chances, especially in the final moments when it looked like they’d at least come away with a point. I think it was a wake up call that this season, you really have to be up for every match, teams have stepped up their game and of course, everyone’s gunning for Guangzhou.

SU: Yeah I think Evergrande perhaps got a bit complacent, especially considering they demolished Chongqing last season. Well, Shanghai International Port Group also fell at the first hurdle, although a bit less of a surprise I think you’d agree, Henan is a difficult place to go. Nevertheless, not the result I would have predicted.

BC: Henan do what they do well and they know how to play on that total joke of a pitch. They got their goal and then parked the bus and it worked for them, especially because SIPG wasn’t able to play any kind of passing football.

SU: I saw the pitch, seriously it’s really an embarrassment to see all the riches in the CSL yet, for the first game of the season, it’s not possible to have all pitches in at least decent condition. Perhaps Henan isn’t one of the rich teams in the league. But really this kind of basic thing is why I always shake my head when I read about China as a rising football power. But yes, the surface did Shanghai International Port Group no favours at all, theirs is a flowing style.

BC: Yeah, Henan wasn’t the only really bad pitch over the weekend and with all the money going into the league, so little is going to anything on the periphery. It makes me wonder if SIPG’s performance last season was them punching above their weight, but we’ll get a better clue this weekend and I’m sure there will be more talk about that in a bit…Their derby opponents certainly didn’t do themselves any favors, did they? For all the money that was spent, it was same old Shenhua.

SU: It was. I have grown increasingly frustrated over the years watching Shenhua continuously cycle their foreign players every season, signing new foreigners at every opportunity. It has gotten to the point where it is really blatant that it is done so the club management can earn a kickback on the transfer fee. There is no other way to explain it. On Saturday, our midfield lacked by bite or presence, in my view made worse by letting Sissoko go. We signed Sissoko last summer, and in order to do that, we had to send Stopila Sunzu out on loan. Sissoko turned out to be a key DM the team needed. Yet he was released at the end of the year. What was the point in that? He played only ten games. Short termism in the extreme. Basically changing every foreigner after a year represents failure after failure. But it goes on and on, and it had a lot to do with why we couldn’t beat Yanbian at home, a team most expect to go straight back down this year.

BC: Not only did Shenhua fail to beat them, but it was pretty clear that Yanbian was the better side and if not for some laughable finishing, should have won it.

SU: I couldn’t agree more. Manzano said after the game a draw was a fair result because Shenhua has more possession and better stats, Shenhua did have a few chances and Demba Ba in particular had a bad game, but really, he was clutching at straws, Yanbian should have won that game 2 or 3-1. I was very annoyed after the game to see guys like Moreno unable to make any mark on the game, Guarin is a technically accomplished midfielder but he just pushed the ball around sideways all game, I think Sissoko should have stayed and Guarin not been signed. I predict Guarin will leave in the summer so Shenhua’s board can get another summer transfer kickback. If not Guarin, then someone else will make way for sure.

BC: I just don’t know what Shenhua was thinking, I don’t think Guarin and Martins are a major upgrade over Sissoko and Cahill and as we talk about it can take a lot of time for new foreigners to adjust. I think Kim is the only real upgrade the club made this offseason and that just won’t be enough. CSL clubs rely heavily on their foreigners and outside of those already talked about, Moreno can be absolutely brilliant, but those moments are few and far between while Demba Ba is very easily frustrated, often with good reason.

SU: I think your assessment is pretty accurate. Although in pure footballing terms Martins I think is an upgrade on Cahill, he’s about 5 years younger and is the agile and quick out-and-out attacker which we need to compliment Ba. Cahill’s role on the pitch last year, I honestly don’t know what position he was meant to be playing in half the time and besides from scoring quite a few goals, didn’t really do that much. However, he did make a difference to team spirit and set an example as a model professional and positive attitude. Those are things Shenhua needed, it remains to be seen whether Martins will fill that gap. Whilst on the topic, Cahill’s contract termination was a joke, if you change your coach every single year, why re-sign players for a year before your new coach arrives? Shenhua’s excuse that Cahill didn’t fit Manzano’s plans was just utter shite.

BC: I think we’re in for a long year once again with lots of talk about the craziness going down around Shenhua. Do we need to talk a little about the match that opened up the round, Hebei’s win over Guangzhou R&F or do you want to go straight into the derby?

SU: I think Hebei’s win is worthy of discussion, I watched that match live, seems their big money signings also made a pretty quick impact, Gervinho on the scoresheet and the Turkish defender scoring at both ends.

BC: Gervinho did exactly what was expected and I imagine he’s going to have a big year in China, abusing domestic defenders on the wing. It was a good win for Hebei, especially because they had to play for at least an hour or so with 10 men.

SU: Yes, and what a bizarre sending off. I am still not sure what happened.

BC: All I can think of is that it was for delaying the match. Hebei had a throw-in and the player came over, had the ball, and then tossed it away, though it appeared like he was just hoping to have a fresh ball that would be dry. It was very weird, though if it spells a crackdown on wasting time, then it’s a good thing, if misused in this case.

SU: Time-wasting is indeed a problem. Well, I would like to discuss Guoan, but it seems there’s not much to say since your games have been mysteriously postponed.

BC: Yeah, another of the odd issues that show the league isn’t ready for primetime just yet. Beijing will play its first match of 2016 after pretty much everyone else has played two matches already.

SU: It’s a huge irony that, with all the talk of the government making football a national priority, seems the Two Meetings organizers aren’t down with the program.

BC: Indeed, it’s hard to say who was responsible for pushing back that match, but the reason was because there was concern about a large gathering of people during this important government event. It shows where football is in the scheme of things…

SU: Yeah it is a good illustration of the reality of China being much different to the propaganda. And I have to say, although it’s not a massive deal, it’s hardly fair to Guoan and the other teams involved.

BC: Yes, but with our new Turkish striker dealing with a bit of an injury, it may actually benefit the club a little bit. Guoan’s home opener will now be against Evergrande, sure to be a unbelievable night at Gongti (and surprising it comes so early in the season). Well, back to the pitch, we have a derby to talk about this weekend, it seems like these have popped up pretty early each year, both teams have a lot to prove, it should be a lot of fun.

SU: Yes, there’s been a lot said about the derby and we’ve spoken about it quite a bit before, I think it’s developed into the fixture everyone hoped it would become faster than everyone imagined, and certainly the whole city is talking about it. It seems that with each derby the emotional baggage piles up as time goes by. This time we have Shenhua trying to avenge last year’s 5-0 humiliation, and SIPG fans looking to get one over their blue counterparts after a certain banner which appeared in Melbourne the other week during an ACL match which I found very amusing.

BC: So early in the CSL season, it’s hard to say that much about each of the teams, but while I imagine this will be intense between the fans and possibly even a little rough on the pitch again, it’s hard to see SIPG struggling in this one, especially with how bad Shenhua looked last week. That said, Shenhua had one of their largest crowds in years last weekend and if they want the fans to continue to turn out, they really need to win this one.

SU: I think so, as we know very well, formbooks go out the window in derbies, and in any case we’re only on the second game. I think it will be an intense encounter again as you say, and expect the referee to be busy although not as much as in last year’s corresponding derby. Shanghai International Port Group I think have to be favourites, I think they moved smartly in the transfer market, signing Elkeson a proven CSL assassin, and crucially, not many other players so they are solid and the team all know each other. Shenhua as usual have a clutch of new players still finding their feet after falling ass-backwards through Hongkou’s ever-spinning revolving door, and their performance against Yanbian was nowhere near good enough. So despite Shanghai International Port Group’s setback last week, I still think they have the upper hand. That said, should Shenhua grab a win, their rivals will be in a sorry state having lost their first three games including in the ACL.

BC: Both sides really need a win in this one, its going to be intense and definitely the match of the weekend, let’s just hope it lives up to it.

SU: Yes, I think its one of the CSLs showpiece fixtures now, let’s hope there isn’t the shenanigans last year which saw the game ruined by Shenhua finishing with 8 mean on the pitch.

BC: Indeed, especially considering the slate of matches, this one will get a ton of focus.

SU: So other games this weekend, any picks?

BC: Honestly there’s nothing that stands out. It will be interesting watching some of these to see how sides come back, but I think the only other match that really offers some excitement on paper would be Beijing-Hebei, which we’ll have to wait until May for.

SU: Yes that would be an interesting game, how unfortunate that it’s been postponed to a date months from now.

BC: Definitely, anything that catches your eye this weekend?

SU: Much as I’d like to try to not focus only on Shanghai, I think it’s fair to say this weekend the derby takes centre stage and the rest of the fixture card is fairly routine.

BC: That sums it up, I’m sure I’ll find myself still watching and hopefully we’ll get some of the surprises we saw last weekend, it’s just great to have the league back after so much talk about non-footballing matters.

SU: I have to agree. There are interesting things we will talk about in the coming weeks, but, sometimes I feel like we are the only people actually discussing the football itself.

BC: For me it’s because I feel a little too close to the league, it is frustrating that despite having a lot to offer, it only catches the attention of those outside China due to transfer talk (or corruption). All the sudden there are so many “experts” jumping in and so many crazy, sometimes downright inane rumors (like one CSL side was to buy a foreign goalkeeper). It’s good to get all that out of the system and be able to focus on the pitch for awhile, though I expect the madness to begin again this summer. Let’s enjoy the football while we can!

SU: I think what you just said has been one of the truest utterances ever made in the pub. Some of the stuff being said overseas has been pure bollocks. Anyway, here is to the football finally being back in town.

BC: Cheers to a great derby day in Shanghai this weekend.

SU: I hope it will be a proper display of all that is great and good about the game in China. Cheers!

 

What do YOU think? Join in the discussion guys in the comments section below!

UK trained journalist and long-time Chinese football observer Cameron Wilson has been writing about Chinese football for over a decade...

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