2015 was supposed to be a big year for Beijing Guoan, coming hot on the heels of their title challenge the year before. It was assumed Gregorio Manzano had all his pieces in place and had finally figured out how things worked in the CSL and was going to lead the team to victory.
Results were very different, however, with the club failing to reach the Asian Champions League for the first time in four years and only the second time in nine years. The biggest disappointment had to be the club’s defeat in the CFA Cup to local “rivals” Beijing BG. These results led to Manzano’s firing and the arrival of Italian Alberto Zaccheroni to lead the capital side. The 62 year old has been in charge of some of Italy’s top sides and then was in charge of Japan from 2010 to 2014, but has been without a position for two seasons. He is the club’s first Italian manager and much will depend upon how he adjusts to the Chinese game and takes charge in the locker room, especially with veterans who have a strong voice like Xu Yunlong and Zhou Ting.
Despite LeTV’s investment, it was more of the old Guoan this transfer window, as the overheated market scared away management from making any domestic moves. However, the return of Zhang Chengdong from what amounted to a football vacation in Spain is a net gain for the club. The club desired to go younger with its foreign players, the average age of the four new arrivals is 28 as compared to 33 with the group on the way out.
Overhauling the foreign contingent saw the arrival of a pair of big new signings from Brazil, Renato Augusto and Ralf. Both are set to revitalize the midfield, the former on the attacking front with the latter handling the defense. Renato Augusto will be in charge of setting up the attack and using his pace to beat defenders, while also providing some scoring spark while Ralf will take over Darko Matic’s position of organizing the back line and ball distribution.
The goal scoring will fall mainly on Burak Yilmaz’s wide shoulders and expectations are high. Over the last five seasons he’s hit double digits for two of Turkey’s top sides and was on pace to do the same this season before leaving for China. Much of what happens to Guoan this season will depend on if Yilmaz scores or not.
Egor Krimets, who was in the capital a few seasons back but failed to make an impact, rounds things out and will be expected to play a key role in the center of the back four. His previous stint at the age of 21 was a difficult adjustment, but the club is hoping that three years later, a mature Krimets can use his height to impose and shut down the attack.
Discussion of departures has to begin with the four foreigners who left. Dejan Damjanovic was impressive last season playing in 29 matches and knocking in 16 goals to lead the team while Pablo Batalla was Manzano’s key man in the middle. Darko Matic was the heart of the team and a key player in the locker room, it will be hard to see who will take his place, while Ha Dae-sung was a good further option in defensive midfield, though it was always a luxury to have two foreign defensive mids.
Outside of the foreigners, there were two domestic players who returned to their hometown teams and are sure to be missed as depth players. Chen Zhihzhao is the one the club will miss most immediately, though his unhappiness in the capital was widely known and talks of him returning to Guangzhou had gone on for awhile. He never really carved a spot in the starting XI for himself, but he did show flashes of brilliance from time to time, mostly with his speed. Guoan certainly has depth in the midfield and in many ways Zhang Chiming is a very similar player, but it is the loss of an option.
While Chen’s return to Guangzhou wasn’t a surprise, Li Yunqiu’s departure certainly shocked plenty. Li only arrived two seasons ago and was seen as a longterm replacement for Zhou Ting in Guoan’s back four. Li’s departure has the potential to hurt more than Chen’s over time as Zhou is probably in his final season and the club is without a good replacement.
It would be a mistake not to mention Shao Jiayi’s retirement as well. Despite being 35 years old, Shao was able to make a contribution coming off the bench and managed 17 league appearances last year. Seeing him end his career without winning a trophy in green was hard for many, especially as it seemed he could continue for another year or two.
On paper, Guoan has a starting lineup that compares favorably to pretty much every side in the league, but fissures begin to appear when you look outside of the starters. The biggest issue will be in the back four where much of the responsibility this season is likely to fall on Lei Tenglong and Krimets, with Xu Yunlong finally stepping aside. Whether the pair is ready for the responsibility will be a big question. In the attack, if Yilmaz struggles (or worse, is injured), Kleber doesn’t strike fear in the hearts of defenses, but Yu Dabao can always help in the attack.
The midfield is where Beijing’s depth is heavily centered and it will be interesting to see how Zaccheroni employs his resources there. Outside of the Brazilians, he has three Zhangs (Chengdong, Xizhe, and Chiming) who are likely to play an important role and hopefully contribute with some goals this season. Song Boxuan and Piao Cheng offer different options for the Italian manager if he wants to change things up.
The goal for Guoan is to get back into the ACL, but that will be an uphill battle as everyone else seemed to get even stronger in the 2016 offseason. It is most likely that Beijing will be fighting for the last ACL spot, with little hope of a title once again. Fans are desperate for a trophy after six seasons without one and the best hope will once again be in the CFA Cup. Guoan’s side is more suited to this sort of cup competition and it will depend on Zaccheroni to take the competition seriously, unlike Manzano last season.