Xujiahui News: Derby draw and continental conquest as SIPG head into the international break
Shanghai SIPG’s indifferent early-season form continued this week with a disappointing showing in Friday evening’s Shanghai derby, followed by a much improved display in the Asian Champions League as Gamba Osaka visited Shanghai Stadium on Tuesday night. Xujiahui News takes a look back at the two performances as the club heads into the international break.
Shanghai SIPG vs Shanghai Shenhua
Chinese Super League Round 2
Shanghai SIPG 1
Cai Huikang 43′
Shanghai Shenhua 1
Gio Moreno 7′
Last Friday evening saw SIPG play host to city neighbours Shanghai Shenhua in the first Shanghai derby of the 2016 CSL season. Following last year’s unbelievable 5-0 dismantling of a Shenhua side who managed to rack up 3 red cards in a highly tempestuous contest which was not without its share of controversy, this year’s instalment had much to live up to. Sure enough, thanks to a healthy dose of moronic behaviour from both sets of fans in the hours preceding the game – with several ugly clashes breaking out around the stadium – the atmosphere inside was a captivating mixture of tension, apprehension and agitated excitement as kick-off approached.
Sadly, for SIPG, it seemed that many of their players absorbed this tension into their own performances, as an opening first 15 minutes visibly wrought with nerves saw the home side concede in horrendous fashion, give away a penalty following a suicidal cross-field pass and struggle to make it out of their own half as they completely lost any sense of composure.
With Shenhua kicking off the night’s entertainment, SIPG barely registered a touch of the ball before goalkeeper Yan Junling found himself morosely picking it out of his net after just 7 minutes. Qin Sheng’s long, looping throw in towards the near post was met by the head of Gio Moreno, who somehow outmuscled three SIPG players to arch a header over the poorly positioned Yan and put his side in front.
From there, things only got worse. With the visitors still in the ascendancy, SIPG simply invited pressure upon themselves, with erratic positioning and misplaced passes a regular feature. The home fans’ misery was further compounded when Asamoah Gyan – with Wu Lei busting a gut to break down the centre of the pitch – inexplicably decided to play a cross field pass back towards his own goal, which managed only to find the path of Cao Yunding. Cao’s resultant shot was only parried by the palpably shaky Yan Junling, and when Wang Shenchao went toe to toe with Shenhua’s Demba Ba from the rebound, hacking at the striker’s heels with the player running away from goal, it was inevitable that a penalty would be the outcome.
For all that SIPG appeared to be gifting their fiercest rivals the occasion, it seemed luck had not completely abandoned them, as Ba’s spot kick sailed wide of the post, to raucous celebrations in the red half of Shanghai Stadium. However, any SIPG fan thinking this would signal the start of an upturn in their side’s performance was unfortunately grievously mistaken. Time and again, the reds sat back and seemingly willed their opponents to attack, and it was not until the final 10 minutes of the first half that Sven-Göran Eriksson’s men had any meaningful possession.
Wu Lei came close with an effort from 16 yards as half time rapidly approached, while relief was finally provided three minutes before the interval, as Cai Huikang nodded home from close range following Elkeson’s deflected shot onto the crossbar.
One can only imagine what was said, or indeed bellowed, inside the home changing room at half time, but it certainly had an impact, as SIPG looked an entirely different outfit from the one which had so passively trudged through the first 40 minutes of the contest. Both Wu Le and Darío Conca imposed themselves on the game more, as the hosts enjoyed a greater amount of both possession and territory than they had amassed previously.
Nonetheless, with a noticeably frustrated Elkeson shunted out to the left wing in order to accommodate the painfully sub-par Gyan as the spearhead of the SIPG attack, the home side could not find a way past Shenhua’s Li Shuai. Meanwhile at the other end, with Obafemi Martins brought on to partner Ba up front, the visitors carved a number of chances out for themselves, only for Ba to find himself equally wasteful in front of goal.
All things considered, given the way the game started, SIPG would have been grateful of a point come the final whistle, although in truth, a home draw to a Shenhua side itself rife with issues is certainly an unsatisfactory outcome. In the first half at least, it seemed as though the occasion and expectations following last year’s result had overwhelmed Sven’s side, who looked a shadow of the team seen both last year, and in the previous ACL outing against Suwon Bluewings. With one point from their opening two league games, there is much work ahead if SIPG are to meet expectations of a serious title challenge this year.
Shanghai SIPG vs Gamba Osaka
AFC Champions League Group G
Shanghai SIPG 2
Elkeson 41′ 62′
Gamba Osaka 1
Following the disappointing derby day performance, Eriksson this week admitted that Sunday’s training session started with an inquest into exactly what went wrong. With those who took to the field on Friday taking responsibility for such a poor showing, focus then switched to the tactical adjustments required to rectify the issues brought so startlingly to light in the clash with Shenhua. Chief amongst them was the matter of accommodating both Asamoah Gyan and Elkeson in the same side.
With Eriksson’s preferred formation of 4-2-3-1 forcing one of the two out-and-out attackers to sit out wide, the head coach experimented with a more traditional 4-4-2 lineup – allowing both star strikers to attack defences through the middle of the park. This of course meant a reshuffle further back, with recently-converted central midfielder Yu Hai pushed back out into his more natural position on the left wing, and Darío Conca sitting in a much deeper, almost regista-like role. Despite having just 48 hours to drill his reshaped side, when the teams took the field on Tuesday evening, there was a great sense of intrigue inside Shanghai Stadium as to how the remodelled reds would fare.
If any fans were concerned of a repeat of Friday’s submissive first half performance, their fears were swiftly allayed as SIPG emerged reinvigorated and with a renewed attacking verve from kick off. After five minutes, Wu Lei’s swift interchange with Elkeson down the right channel led to a pinpoint cross from the Brazilian from which Yu Hai, in his more advanced position, headed just wide. Moments later, Gyan and Elkeson combined efficiently for the first time, only for the latter to fire his shot over the bar.
So far so good then, although it was Yan Juling who produced the opening exchanges’ stand out moment, with a spectacular double save – the first a lightning-fast reflex save low to his right from a commanding Patric header, the second a perhaps rather less purposive block with his face from the resultant Kim Jung-Ya rebound.
Then, on 40 minutes, the breakthrough came. Conca’s deep free kick could only be helped goalward by Yasuhito Endō, with Gyan the all-too-grateful recipient. His nod down to Elkeson left his strike partner with the simplest of tap ins from five yards, sending the home side into the changing rooms deservedly in front.
Nonetheless, that lead was very nearly wiped out early after the restart, as Osaka forward Takashi Usami lashed a shot over from just 12 yards. Still, the very same man redeemed himself with a devilishly whipped free kick which sailed over the SIPG wall to meat the airborne Patric, leaving his culpable marker Shi Ke rooted to the ground.
However, the hosts’ lead was swiftly restored, as within just two minutes, yet another deep Conca delivery was authoritatively met by Elkeson – gliding towards the six-yard box and powering a header past a helpless Masaaki Higashiguchi to seal his brace.
The evening’s frantic action was not finished there, however. Almost immediately Osaka found themselves veering down on the SIPG goal once more, and after substitute Shu Kurata flicked on to the completely unmarked Kotaro Omori, SIPG hearts were firmly in mouths as the winger swerved the challenge of Shanghai centre back Kim Ju-Young and fired just past Yan’s outside post.
While there was still plenty of time and opportunity for both teams to find the net once more, neither could muster the precision required to do so. As referee Mohanad Sarray called time on a pulsating, end-to-end affair, SIPG could breathe a sigh of relief at three well earned ACL points, which sent them top of their group following Melbourne Victory’s stalemate with Suwon Bluewings earlier in the day.
And so, going into the international break, SIPG find themselves in the curious position of sitting top of their Champions League group, whilst simultaneously occupying a relegation spot in the domestic competition. Whereas one would assume this will change once the competition resumes in the first weekend of April, with a trip to Chongqing Lifan, pertinent early questions have been raised as to this side’s ability to fight on two fronts this year.
Nevertheless, if Sven’s rejigged formation can build on these early green shoots of recovery, and the frontline pairing of Gyan and Elkeson can hastily develop their understanding on the fly, then concerns over SIPG’s CSL form will soon be subdued. Gyan himself has been lively, if somewhat profligate so far this term, and with Elkeson impressive up top, and the raw but eager Jean Evrard Kouassi waiting in the wings should the number three’s performances drop; it will be interesting to see whether or not the head coach has the nerve to drop the man earning a reported £227,000 per week. All things considered, Shanghai Stadium seemingly looks set for a rollercoaster 2016.