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Pub Talk: Are Jiangsu and Hebei the real deal? Why are Evergrande out of Asia already? And other pontification

An off-pitch WEF Pub expansion took place this week. What other oblique happenings have happened? Evergrande are the only Chinese team out of the ACL so far, your duo muse that. Shanghai Ultra is unamused by Shenhua’s latest failure in Nanjing, whilst it’s happiness and light in Beijing as Bcheng celebrates his team’s first goals. Hebei are also on the agenda – Ultra thinks they are flattering to decieve, Bcheng feels they could be the real deal. Pull up a stool and join the chat.

SU: Hello there B, isn’t good to be back in the familiar environs of this fine establishment tonight?

BC: Feels much better now that my side have finally scored a goal and even come up with a win.

SU: Yes, last week’s action saw a return to form for the CSL and the most predictable of rounds – all last year’s top four winning, and Shenhua losing once again in Nanjing!

BC: Let’s start out with the action in Nanjing, it was a pretty close match until an unlikely hero stepped up, Jiangsu captain Ren Hang scored a brace, and both headers.

SU: Yes, I have to say I was not impressed with Jiangsu in general. Nor Shenhua for that matter. But the home team didn’t look all that great and their new recruits were nullified by the Shenhua backline for the most part. Ramires spent most of the game falling over. I think a draw would have been a fair result, but Shenhua can’t complain at the end of the day, the second goal in particular was very slack for a defense which had a lot of money spent on it in the winter.

BC: Yes, both goals saw defenders caught out, but in particular that second one was a major oversight. I think you’re right about the draw being a fair result, but that’s what makes Jiangsu a title contender and, let’s admit it, Shenhua not one, it’s the ability to finish off a match and win when they shouldn’t.

SU: I’m afraid I can’t disagree with you. Last week I was optimistic about Shenhua, after seeing this game the glass is half-empty again. It is the same problem as before, Shenhua spend money on a big, beautiful jigsaw but are never able to piece it together enough for anyone to get a clear idea of the picture. Looking at their start, it’s been a very lucky draw at home to newly-promoted Yanbian, a draw against a distinctly under-par Shanghai International Port Group, an expected home win against mediocre Shijiazhuang, scoreless draw at home against Shandong and an away defeat yet again in Nanjing. In short, zero improvement over last year.

BC: I don’t think its been a big improvement, but it’s definitely a stronger side than last year and they won’t be flirting (even if only briefly) with relegation this year, should be solidly in the upper half of the table and perhaps can turn into a contender next year.

SU:suggests they have gone backwards in a way. Still we are only 5 games in. I predict that Shenhua will change two of their foreigners in the summer yet again and have to send another two off on loan.

BC: I don’t think we’ll see anything that drastic, but there will likely be changes. On that subject, Guoan certainly need to change foreigners, Kleber was going to be the bench foreigner, but he’s been forced into action this season, to disappointing results. Thank god Yilmasz was finally healthy and showed why Guoan paid him so much.

SU: His debut was impressive. A powerful Turk indeed and he had a hand in all three goals.

BC: The first half was more of the same for Guoan, but Yilmasz was the absolute difference maker and as you said, all three goals were directly due to his play. It’s been rare for a Guoan foreigner to turn out to be everything promised (and more), but watching his debut, spirits are high again.

SU: We’ve seen foreigners make a big impact in the beginning and then tail off as they become disinterested or disillusioned with China, so let’s see if he can maintain it.

BC: Well, we talked a lot about Evergrande against Henan and it seemed for awhile Henan was listening to me and would deliver, but after it looked like they went up 2-0 only to be called for a iffy foul, Evergrande went straight down the pitch and scored off a questionable penalty, a huge momentum turn.

SU: Right, but did you see Henan’s goal? Laughably offside

BC: True, that sort of made up for the fact the 2nd goal should have stood.

SU: Nevertheless Evergrande did the business and are only what, a point behind Jiangsu? I think the top two may not change for the rest of the season, possibly.

BC: I can’t remember what my preseason prediction was, if it was Evergrande an SIPG or Evergrande and Jiangsu, but I think you’re right, it will be a two way battle between these two sides with SIPG perhaps being able to make a run at it, but everyone else will eventually fall back.

SU: I think so. What about Hebei?

BC: Hebei is a good enough side, but I don’t think they are ready to challenge for the title just yet, still a piece or two away. I think their draw at home in the first ever CSL “Hebei derby” thispast week showed that.

SU: Yeah I like I said the week before I don’t see them as challengers at all, maybe they could grab an ACL place but that’s it.

BC: They are in that second tier where I’d place Guoan and Shandong as well, though it seems so far, Hebei is on that level by themselves. Shandong, however, finally stepped up, handily beating Yanbian after going down early and proving that the northeastern side does have some weaknesses

SU: Yep, Yanbian have that kind of mojo which a lot of newly promoted sides have, but Shandong were too much for them. What about Shanghai International Port Group? They have been in a very funny position of struggling in the league, needing a late own-goal to beat Guangzhou R&F, yet they comprehensively disposed of Melbourne Victory in the ACL to progress to the knock-out stage with a game to spare.

BC: I think their ACL results have shown that is where their focus is. They have yet to face a top side in the league and so I think Sven felt they could cruise through the league. The schedulers have been very generous to SIPG, more so than any other side, because outside of the derby, their first “tough” match isn’t until Round 9 when they travel to Gongti.

SU: I’d agree except for the Shanghai derby in the second round, which in hindsight really came too early in the season. SIPG clearly have designs on continental glory.

BC: Shenhua, of course, have a much more difficult schedule, or at least are right in the midst of their most difficult string of matches, and will host Hebei this weekend, what are your thoughts?

SU: My thoughts are that this is a game Shenhua have to win if they have any hopes of doing better than last year. It seems absurd to use the word “must” so early in the season, but I think it’s about right. Shenhua are of course traditionally very strong at home so you’d be hard-pressed to predict defeat. Anything beyond that, well, my prediction-ometer is still being calibrated in 2016

BC: Before this past weekend, I’d predict a definite win for Hebei, but I was very surprised by their failure to defeat Shijiazhuang. I’m going to disagree with you, Shenhua do play better at Hongkou, but despite Hebei’s weak performance over the weekend, I still can’t see Shenhua winning this match.

SU: I’m only saying Shenhua won’t be defeated. But then I can’t think of many times when I’ve predicted a home beating for Shenhua… let’s see, it’s one of the more interesting matches this weekend. Shenhua are still smarting after 8 years of not winning in Nanjing, Manzano is under pressure to mix things up a bit this weekend. And by the way, fuck, it’s another Sunday night match, why are so many games on Sunday this year? Perhaps it’s a TV thing again?

BC: As a Guoan fan, I’ve grown used to these Sunday night affairs. For me, this is the match I’m most curious to see this weekend as I have my feelings that Shenhua aren’t on that same level with Hebei, but I also have concerns about the relative inexperience of Hebei, so it will be interesting to see how it all works out.

SU: Yeah, who knows. I feel like a stuck record saying this, early in the season still, plus Shenhua are going to change things, expect some first teamers played out of position, just to make things even more predictable. Hebei really the jury is still out on them for me, I don’t think their foreigners are particularly better than anyone elses, for starters.

BC: Hmm, I think we really don’t see eye to eye about Hebei. Gervinho, if motivated, is the ideal CSL foreigner, big, fast, and dominant. Mbia and Kakuta are probably going to help keeping Gervinho interested and Lavezzi is another solid player, though not an ideal striker. Gulum the perfect center back for the CSL. I think that they’ve built a really impressive CSL side that is probably a year and 1 or 2 players away from being a legitimate title contender.

SU: I think we really need to wait and see. We all know how some foreigners hack it in the CSL and some don’t, that’s something which is very difficult to know in advance and it takes time to see who is going to make a difference and who is not.

BC: Right, the 10 game point tends to show things more clearly, but I have a lot of belief in this Hebei side, I think there is a lot that looks encouraging on paper and they’ve been a fun team to watch, so this clash against Shenhua, definitely the tastiest of the round.

SU: Yes, it would appear that Shenhua have hogged the “game of interest” conch for the last few rounds, albeit sharing with Evergrnade – Guoan the other week.

BC: If they do beat Hebei, that will continue into next week as well. I’m usually optimistic and can find something worthwhile in most matches, but honestly, this week, even I’m hard pressed to find another match to get excited about.

SU: I believe we are in the same boat. I’m looking at the forthcoming fixtures we haven’t yet discussed and failing to drum up enthusiasm. Sorry, everyone else!

BC: Yeah, I mean it will be interesting to see how these things go and there are some chances for upsets, but nothing on paper that makes me say, watch this match.

SU: Indeed it’s inevitable that not all games can be so eye catching. Well how about turning our attention away from the games themselves, how do you think the season has played out so far, in the context of it being the year when the rest of the world suddenly starting paying attention?

BC: I think the top four spots are pretty much along what I expected preseason, though Shandong and Beijing’s current positions are a real surprise, though neither are that far away from where they should be. We expected a more competitive season and right now, outside of Changchun’s tough start, 4 points separate 3 and 15, so we can expect plenty of excitement as things continue.

SU: I mean, away from the actual table, any thoughts?

BC: Away from the table I think the most interesting thing, something that I think we both were likely expecting, is that the big monied foreigners aren’t dominating the league or showing it to be a “joke”. This isn’t a retirement home, it’s serious football played in front of huge crowds (this season bigger than ever before, another big talking point).

SU: Yeah that was what I was thinking actually, you’d think the league had only just been established in January looking at some of the foreign media reports. At least in the end the big money coming in can eventually lead to a better level of understanding and appreciation of Chinese football in general.

BC: I think so, the fact fans are coming out in greater numbers once again is encouraging. People are giving the league a real chance and are enjoying it. I think pretty much every weekend, every match except one has over 20,000 fans, that is something that I don’t think any league in Asia can match and no matter what is said about the national team, the CSL is quickly becoming (if it isn’t already) the most interesting league in Asia.

SU: I think so. I think it is one of the more interesting leagues in the world actually, although not purely for the right reasons. But that’s why we love, right?

BC: Certainly, the dysfunction of it all is part of the fun.

SU: Chinese football’s the name, dysfunction the game!

BC: In talking about surprises, if I were to tell you that the only CSL side not to advance in the ACL would be Guangzhou Evergrande, I’m sure you wouldn’t believe me…

SU: Indeed. Not sure what to make of it at all frankly.

BC: My understanding is that Evergrande is definitely out at this point, even if they win their last match and Urawa loses, though they’d both have 8 points, the tie breaker is head-to-head which Evergrande loses on.

SU: I think that’s how it breaks down. Did Evergrande sacrifice themselves for the glory of the motherland by letting Elkeson join Shanghai International Port Group?

BC: And then going out and buying Jackson Martinez? Big f*cking sacrifice. I just don’t think they were fully ready, they were drawn in a tough group, and they are likely to just barely miss going through. They are basically not going through due to an 89th minute goal on match day 3. I think the first three matches as they were just coming together is what did them in, only two points, a disappointing draw at home against Pohang and a very un-Evergrande like situation of giving up goals in the 89th minute to both Sydney and Urawa.

SU: I think you are spot on with that. I do think Evergrande are not quite as strong in previous years, but that is due mostly to natural ebb and flow. Plus a lot of other teams have closed the gap so they don’t appear so mighty as before, relatively speaking. But in this case clearly luck hasn’t been on their side in the ACL.

BC: On the other hand, SIPG is clear through and with their win over Sanfrecce last night, Shandong Luneng have guaranteed their place in the next stage. Your Subei friends won big last night as well, keeping hope alive of going through.

SU: Jiangsu certainly had an easier draw than Evergrande. Isn’t it interesting how they have Jiangsu on their ACL badge and not Sunning?

BC: Talk all you want about the AFC being a corrupt bunch of wankers, at least they stood firm on this front, it wasn’t Jiangsu Suning that made it into the tournament so this season there can be no Suning involved.

SU: Yes for once I find myself applauding the football authorities. It’s a pity they don’t use the same badge in the CSL, but, never mind.

BC: Much like with Evergrande, Suning is in a tough position due mainly to a disappointing opening day draw in Vietnam. They currently sit in second, one point ahead of FC Tokyo, but Tokyo’s next match is an easier away date in Vietnam, whereas Suning travel to Korea to face table toppers Jeonbuk needing a win to guarantee a place in the next round.

SU: Yep. Well let’s see what will happen in the final round.

BC: Indeed, at least we’re guaranteed to see two sides flying the flag for China in the next round, meaning we’re treated to plenty more football to talk about.

SU: I was going to say that no matter what anyone says about Chinese football, the ACL performances have improved quite a lot in recent years, and I’m not just talking about Evergrande winning it twice. It wasn’t so long ago that we were regularly lamenting Chinese clubs’ inability to get past the group stages.

BC: Always great to see Chinese football improving, well, does that bring yet another pub to a close?

SU: Yes I think it does. It’s been a great drink as always.

BC: Cheers mate, have a good one!

SU: Cheers, thanks!

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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