Xujiahui News: SIPG FC season preview
Following a 2015 CSL season in which SIPG once again raised the bar for themselves by contesting Guangzhou Evergrande for top spot all the way to the final day of the season, the 2016 campaign is one in which a sustained title challenge will be viewed as the minimum expectation for head coach Sven Göran Eriksson’s side. Xujiahui News takes a look at the club’s prospects for the year ahead.
2016: Onwards and upwards?
Although 2015 ended with a touch of disappointment as the club failed to overtake eventual CSL champions, Guangzhou Evergrande in the race for the title, it is fair to say that pushing the serial title winners so close was no small feat in itself given the vast experience and high profile international names amongst the Canton club’s ranks.
In truth, despite Evergrande’s league triumph only being confirmed on the final day, SIPG fans will look back at September’s 0-3 home defeat to Luiz Felipe Scolari’s side as the day that all but anointed the eventual champions. That day saw SIPG bettered in every area of the pitch and rightly come away with a hiding.
However, it is results such as the 3-4 home reversal to Shandong Luneng, the 2-0 defeat away at the subsequently relegated (and relocated) Guizhou Renhe, and the failure to come away with more than a point in each of the two fixtures against the newly promoted Shijiazhuang Everbright that will really stick in the craw of the Xujiahui faithful – all results that should have yielded much more than they ultimately did.
Whilst the good news is that two of the goal scorers in that home loss to Evergrande have since departed the Guangdong side – Robinho released to his native Brazil, whereas compatriot Elkeson was allowed to make the switch to SIPG “for the purpose of supporting Chinese teams to compete in the AFC Champions League, and for the national glory” (as well as a hearty ¥132 million transfer fee) – the bad news is that 2015 signing, Alan is back in contention after a whole season on the sidelines through injury, while the capture of Jackson Martínez and the presence of 25-goal Ricardo Goulart leaves Evergrande with a lethal frontline that should eviscerate many a CSL defence this year.
More challengers to the throne?
Add to this the astronomical spending done by neighbours Jiangsu Suning, the eyebrow-raising moves made by Hebei China Fortune, as well as a number of other shrewd moves in the transfer market by the likes of Beijing Guoan and Shanghai Shenhua, and it becomes clear that the dominance of the top two witnessed in 2015 is unlikely to be quite so straightforward in the new campaign.
Nonetheless, there is much to be said for not upheaving a young and steadily progressing squad through superfluous spending, and with the addition of Elkeson being the sole incoming transfer for SIPG in the winter transfer window, Eriksson now presides over a largely settled squad littered with Chinese internationals and quality foreign talent.
Completing that foreign contingent are Korean centre back, Kim Ju-Young, midfield maestro, Darío Conca, the prodigious Ghanaian captain, Asamoah Gyan, and the young winger, Jean Evrard Kouassi – who will no doubt have been pleased to see the Chinese transfer window shut last week without any more big name signings arriving through the doors of Shanghai Stadium. The Ivorian showed plenty of promise over the first half of the 2015 season, netting four times despite only starting five games. Nevertheless, once the summer transfer window rolled around, Kouassi found himself in the unenviable position of being deregistered and playing with the reserve side for the rest of the season, after Gyan was brought in from UAE side, Al Ain.
Some fond farewells
The arrival of Elkeson (and previously Gyan) inevitably meant that the club had to trim their foreign quota before this season began, and that unfortunately meant the loss of two fan favourites, in Tobias Hysén and Davi. Despite the fact Davi only joined the side prior to the 2015 season, his bustling performances in central midfield meant fans instantly took to the Brazilian. However, recurrent injuries, a surplus of foreigners, and the emergence of Yu Hai as another central midfield option meant his career in Shanghai was always likely to be a brief one.
All the more upsetting to SIPG fans was the departure of Hysén, scorer of 31 goals in 54 appearances over 2 seasons in Shanghai. It had previously been suggested that the Swedish hitman was seeking a return to his homeland and once Elkeson arrived the move was signed off, with the striker returning to his previous club IFK Göteborg. The frontman will be sorely missed by the adoring SIPG faithful, although having the 2013 and 2014 CSL top goalscorer replace him in the number nine jersey should go some way to alleviating the anguish.
For all that Eriksson can rely upon a settled squad, there are still question marks hanging over what comprises his best 11. Although Kim has established himself as first choice centre back, there are still lingering issues over who is best to partner him at the heart of the SIPG defence. In 2015, Shi Ke, Yang Boyu, He Guan and Wang Jiajie were all utilised in the position, and, while Shi is seemingly the preferred choice when fit, injuries and a inconsistent form throughout the last campaign meant that SIPG lacked an established back line – a vital component of any title-winning side.
Sven to give youth a chance?
With club captain Sun Xiang now 34 and entering the latter stages of his career, 2016 could well see more opportunities presented to young full back, Fu Huan. The Genbao Football Academy graduate enjoyed a highly productive CSL campaign back in 2014, starting in two-thirds of his side’s league games. However that number was reduced to just five in 2015, thanks to the introduction of the veteran left back, Sun. Having started both SIPG fixtures in the Asian Champions League so far this year, the youngster will be hopeful of more opportunities to come this time around.
Another even more youthful squad member hoping to break through into the first team in 2016 is 18 year-old, Hu Jinghang. The China under-19 international comes highly rated, and is viewed as being the brightest prospect to progress through the club’s ranks since Wu Lei. The Hubei-born forward was invited to train with French side Olympique Lyonnais last year (although this eventually fell through due to visa issues) whilst previous to that Marcelo Lippi was rumoured to have expressed an interest in taking him south to Guangzhou. SIPG were unsurprisingly pleased to keep “Wu Lei 2” in Shanghai, and his selection on the bench for the two ACL games – including a very brief late cameo in the 3-0 win over Muangthong United – suggests he may be given a chance to demonstrate his talents more regularly this year.
All things considered, SIPG certainly have the firepower to propel them towards another title challenge in 2016. In Elkeson, Gyan, Wu Lei and Conca, the Xujiahui side have one of the most dangerous, and more importantly, proven, attacking outfits in the CSL. Thus, provided Sven Göran Eriksson can determine his preferred central defensive combination – and provided that pairing can stay fit – the club should be there or thereabouts come the end of the season. At the same time, with the newfound riches splashed throughout the league as a whole; expect plenty of surprises along the way in what could well be one of the most tightly contested CSL seasons in recent years.