Pub Talk: Two wounded beasts duel – Beijing Guoan, Guangzhou Evergrande and the new money teams.
The weather is never far from the pub agenda, this week spring is springing which means the CSL is getting into full swing. Evergrande and Guoan who face off and your pair discuss this big game – can both teams get over their disappointing starts to far? The pub pundits ponder. The Asian Champions League is also covered – mixed fortunes for China’s sides. Meanwhile three teams who were either not in the CSL last year or are looking very different this year are put under the microscope – Yanbian, Jiangsu and Hebei. What do the pub’s peering microscope eyes reveal? Read on, and join in the discussion at the end.
BC: We’re back in the pub this week and it’s a lovely spring day, while it’s absolutely beautiful outside, I’m extremely depressed, but more on that later…How you doing, Ultra?
CW: Not bad mate thanks. Spring is in the air, sort of. Although its quite wet down south. As it were.
BC: Ah yes, the first of the many rainy seasons…Well, it’s raining on the hopes of Chinese ACL sides, isn’t it?
CW: It is, well perhaps not for Shanghai International Port Group – their progress in the ACL is inverse to their Chinese Super League campaign so far.
BC: Yeah, SIPG is doing well during their first trip in Asia, a good win in Osaka sees them on top of the group. It seems Sven has them up for the ACL matches, something that the other three sides are struggling with.
CW: I’m pretty shocked by Evergrande’s regression on the continent this season. Any theory on why they have been so poor, and are pretty much already out?
BC: Indeed, they are all but out of Asia, not a good show of defending their title. I wonder how much preseason preparation is an issue, they haven’t really impressed in the league yet either. It could also be an issue of the new foreigners needing time to gel or also, going with prep, guys who are a little tired after the international break.
CW: Could be any number of those. I think we’ve spoken before about how this year we expect the title race to be the most open for quite a few years, it looks that way after the first three games of the season but of course its very early days. But with Evergrande almost out of the ACL that means they will have nothing to focus on but the league. Hell, they might even take the CFA cup seriously this year.
BC: I’d assume they take the cup seriously as they haven’t won it in a few seasons. How the ACL plays out will be interesting, Shandong and Jiangsu are definitely still in the mix, though going through isn’t going to be easy for either side.
CW: Shandong are still very much in the mix in group F, they must be wondering how they got beat 4-1 at home to Seoul then held them to a draw this week away from home. They are quite an odd team Shandong, quite inconsistent. I haven’t seen any great change since Kuka was given his marching orders. But it’s between them and San Frecce, Buriram are already out sadly.
BC: For Shandong it all comes down to what happens in the next round when they face off against Sanfrecce, their match in Seoul was an extremely boring affair.
CW: I didn’t catch it to be honest but 0-0 does suggest it wasn’t as exciting as last time they faced Seoul. How about Jiangsu then? They seem to be faring less well in the ACL as the league.
BC: I was going to say they are in a tough group, but there’s really no easy groups when it comes to the ACL. That said, of all the groups, theirs is the tightest, with only 3 points separating first and fourth and where anything is possible. Jiangsu should be able to beat the Vietnamese side in Nanjing, so then a result against Jeonbuk in Korea should see them through. This year’s ACL is definitely interesting, through four matches there could be 3 Chinese sides advancing or only a single side.
CW: It’s pretty open. On the subject of Becamex Bình Duong (yes I admit I copied and pasted that) it’s good to see the ACL mixing it up a bit this year including teams from other countries, before the eastern half of the draw was basically the Japan / Korea / China / Australia club championship.
BC: Yes and they’ve held their own so far when at home. This is what makes the ACL such a great competition, it’s going to be an exciting finish, much like the CSL has been so far. What a start to the season, eh?
CW: Yes it’s been quite remarkable. Pretty much everything is surprising to me so far even although we are only three games in. I’m surprised to see Jiangsu at the top. I’m surprised to Evergrande not so near the top. And I’m surprised to see Shanghai International Port Group and Guoan near the bottom, although it’s been only two games for Guoan so far.
BC: Well, when we talked last week, I said that we shouldn’t downplay some of these matches, let’s start with Hebei-Jiangsu, which ended in a 1-1 draw. It was Hebei’s first home match, they had a big, motivated crowd on hand and they look to be more ready than I thought, they have the potential to be one of the better sides this year. It was always going to be a tough match, Jiangsu should be happy to have come away with a point.
CW: Yeah I expected Jiangsu to perhaps win that one, it’s difficult for me to see Hebei finishing that high up the table, they have some great foreigners we all know about, but the core of their domestic side is basically still a China League One team as far as I can see. Du Wei has the experience but he’s getting on a bit despite his recent recall to the national side.
BC: They made some really strong transfers though. Jiang Ning is a decent player and compliments their foreigners. Ding Haifeng has a lot of potential and Jin Yangyang is another excellent young defender. They have built an excellent back four and with their foreign attackers, they are a serious team.
CW: Yeah I do think they will make a decent fist of it this year. How about Jiangsu though, do you think they are a more solid outfit overall?
BC: I think like we talked about before, their issues stem from having everyone working together and figuring things out, it tends to take time in the CSL and when they’ve had success its been more the foreign players taking over rather than a team effort.
CW: I think so. Well it was an interesting game. Certainly I don’t think Hebei will be anywhere near the relegation zone and as a promoted team, indeed one which pretty much came out of the blue with sudden big investment and coming up via second place, they look like they could become a permanent fixture in the CSL. Speaking of promoted teams, I’m interested to hear your view on Guoan’s last match?
BC: Getting straight to the subject of my depression….Yanbian was definitely pumped for this one, but as you’ve seen in person, they are a decent enough team, really good on the counter-attack with some speedy players. As for Guoan, hmm…I don’t know what to say, it’s been a horrible start to the season, they’ve yet to come together and have looked really bad.
CW: Well I said before the start of the season I didn’t agree with those predicting Yanbian would go straight back down again. Again early days but they’ve already shown they are more than capable of playing a good game of football against established CSL sides.
BC: Yeah, at this point, unless they seriously drop off, I can’t see them going down. They have a lot of potential, though I’m afraid a lot of it will get raided after this season. It’s hard to say what’s wrong with Guoan, they just can’t seem to score. I always try to avoid European comparisons but they are becoming the Arsenal of China, lots of pretty passing and good play, but when they get the ball in front of the goal they tend to be clueless.
CW: I’m surprised by Guoan’s struggles, there is of course plenty of time to rectify matters though.
BC: I’m not. This was never going to be their year and when the main foreigner who was expected to lead the way gets injured, what wasn’t going to be a big year for the side was made all the worse. Well, enough of that, another game we talked about last week that panned out was Chongqing-SIPG, traveling to Lifan is not going to be an easy thing to do this year.
CW: Yep, Shanghai International Port Group must be kicking themselves at having not beaten a team which had 10 men for almost all of the game.
BC: Definitely, that could be one of those things they really regret as the season goes on, not sure what happened to them as I missed the match, but it’s making things interesting.
CW: Yeah. The Guangzhou derby was also a pretty decent game, although I thought R&F had a decent goal disallowed for reasons I couldn’t really see.
BC: I did see that one, yes, that goal being disallowed was a bit controversial, there was a little contact, but nothing worthy of calling a foul. For much of the first half, R&F looked the better side and were more dangerous. Evergrande came through in the end, but it wasn’t one of their better performances.
CW: Still it’s the sign of champion’s credentials though isn’t it? Winning without playing that well.
BC: All credit to Evergrande, there is a reason why they’ve dominated the league.
CW: Yeah. And Martinez scored a very nicely taken goal once more, he is looking like a signing which is going to work out, unlike some of the big money buys who have left China with their tail between their legs.
BC: There are a lot of issues with foreigners in the CSL, but in observing how things work, one of the most important factors in deciding their likelihood of success or not tends to be if they have a manager they are motivated to play for and with Scolari in charge, I can see why Martinez would be.
CW: That’s true, Scolari has the gravitas and standing to motivate top players. Although one wonders how Evergrande’s seemingly imminent elimination from the ACL at such an early stage will affect his job security there.
BC: I would venture to say it won’t effect things at all by itself. It will definitely be disappointing, but as long as they win a trophy this season, I think he’ll be fine. It’s hard to demand the league and ACL every season.
CW: That’s true but it is Evergrande, plus getting knocked out in the group stage is definitely a big disappointment for them, relatively speaking. That said I am not saying he should be moved on, I think we’ve spoken before about the huge spinning carousel wheel which is the managerial merry-go-round in China.
BC: If they come away with no trophies this year, I think Scolari’s seat will get hot, but while this is a disappointment, I don’t think it will matter too much. They did get antsy with Cannavaro though, so if they don’t move up the table quickly, maybe they do consider a move.
CW: The Cannavaro episode was an odd one, I got the impression they wanted to clear out any connections to Lippi and make a fresh start.
BC: Well, on the subject of managers on the hot seat, we’ve talked a lot about Shandong’s lack of patience with managers. They once again travelled down to the Yangtze River delta, this time to face Hangzhou, and fell 2-0. It was shocking to look up and see them down 2-0 before the 15th minute.
CW: Definitely one of the most surprising results so far, really no idea what is going up in Jinan. Shocking indeed to be down so quickly, especially against Hangzhou, a team no-one expects to finish in the top half of the league.
BC: We’ve talked a little about slow starts, this is yet another side that is struggling. Its really hard to explain, they started the season earlier than anyone with ACL qualifying and looked pretty good from the start, but their only win was a 3-2 fight against mediocre Liaoning and that 4-1 defeat to Seoul was a shocker in itself. It’s really hard to figure out what’s going wrong up there, but there is something seriously wrong.
CW: Yeah I am at a loss, we’ve discussed Shandong many times over the past couple of seasons as to why they don’t do better than they do with the squad that they have. They also have quite good continuity compared to most clubs. So I don’t know what to say really other than, again, early days we shall see how they fare. Speaking of which they have Shenhua this weekend. Care to make a prediction?
BC: It’s a really hard game to pick, depending on which Shandong shows up. There’s always a lot of passion when these two sides meet. I have a feeling we’re looking at a draw or possibly Shandong just slightly edging the home side.Which is weird scheduling, out of their first 4 matches, 3 of them are in the Yangtze delta…
CW: Yes and speaking of weird scheduling, Shenhua will be four games into the season and still not have made it out of Shanghai. Regardless, it’s a big test for Shenhua this round, so far this season Yanbian and Shijiazhuang were both games they were expected to win, whilst Shenhua also faced a distinctly below par Shanghai International Port Group. So a solid Shandong side will give a useful indication of whether Shenhua have really levelled up on last season.
BC: I’m hoping for a drama filled night at Hongkou, it’s really one of the better games of the round.
CW: Yeah I have many good memories of matches against Shandong, if I’m not mistaken there are often late, late goals in this game. Shenhua certainly looked good against Shijiazhuang, in particular Guarin who made one absolutely world class pass for the second goal. But, of course, Shijiazhuang are a team Shenhua should beat at home comfortably so it told us nothing really about Shenhua’s true level.
BC: Looking forward to this one, of course, the match of the round is here in Beijing. I’m not optimistic about it, but it would be like Guoan to lose to newly promoted Yanbian last week and beat Evergrande this week.
CW: Yes it is of course very much this week’s choice match. Strangely, both teams go into this game with morale problems and in unfamiliar positions in the table.
BC: More so for Evergrande than Guoan. It’s going to be a great atmosphere in Gongti. This match has tended to be near the end of the year (if not the very last match) the past few seasons, this time around it will be Beijing’s home opener. Yilmasz still doesn’t seem fully fit, so Guoan’s midfield needs to step up and contribute some goals. The defense has looked weak so if Evergrande is up for this match, it should be a win for them.
CW: That’s right I associate this game with summertime or the championship run-in. Tough to predict, if Guoan get beat it would be another setback for you guys. How is Zhang Xizhe playing this season? Seems he was good enough to get back into the China national team.
BC: That’s not saying much. Two matches in, its hard to say much, like I said reviewing the Yanbian match, Guoan has been okay in most places, but they just don’t seem capable of scoring. There aren’t enough connections in the attacking side of the pitch and many of the players just seem like they are floating around, no team work at all.
CW: Yep. The common theme this week seems to be things are all a bit odd but we don’t have enough games to go on. If its still all like this in a couple of months, then we really will have a very fascinating season on our hands.
BC: I think we’ll see things shake their way out, right now the big issue is teams coming together, that takes time, and when you add a new manager into the mix, growing pains aren’t uncommon, however it is unfortunate and it shouldn’t be this way. As a Guoan fan, it’s hard to see hope at the end of the tunnel, especially if they lose this one.
CW: Yeah I have a feeling this may not be a good year for Guoan but you do have no ACL to distract you.
BC: It was a late start and the injury to Yilmasz is killer. They were thinking he’d lead the attack and didn’t prepare any other options and now they’re in trouble.
CW: Ín this way as you said the other week, the cancelled match is perhaps a blessing.
BC: That is true. Well, outside of the two “rivalry” matches, we have Henan hosting Jiangsu on the shitty pitch in Zhengzhou, could this be where Suning run into trouble?
CW: Could very well be. Many is the team which has fallen on its sword in Henan. Laughably bad pitch, intimidating atmosphere, creaky stadium, impressive home record means trouble for visiting clubs.
BC: Yes, I have a feeling we’ll see a bit of a slip up, though at worst Jiangsu will come away with a point, Henan won’t be the total disaster it is for other sides.
CW: I’d tend to agree with that prediction. Crappy pitches are great levellers.
BC: Anything else have you excited this weekend?
CW: I think Shanghai International Port Group’s match against Liaoning arouses some interest, they’ve been doing well in the ACL but strangely lackluster in the CSL, I’m interested to see how they fare in a game they must fancy.
BC: I would imagine an easy win for SIPG, especially as its at home, anything less and we seriously have to wonder what is going on this year. It’s a crazy year, three matches in and you have 4 sides who are undefeated, 3 of the 4 are unlikely choices.
CW: Yes I did notice that. Speaking of Liaoning, didn’t they get a crazy big crowd last week?
BC: It was 48,157 for their home opener after returning to Shenyang. There are a lot of footy fans in Liaoning, if the team do well, they have a support base, though that tops anything we’ve seen. Overall last week was crazy, there were 2 other matches above 44,000 in attendance and all except Hangzhou’s upset got over 21,000.
CW: Yes but why are they suddenly coming out now?
BC: This is another “who knows?” question. I’d guess its to show appreciation for the team now that its back, showing they have passion, but 48k is double what they were getting in Shenyang. One suspects free tickets had a role in things, we’ll have to see how things work the rest of the year.
CW: Well I’m always happy to see full stadiums, no matter how or why. Let’s hope that continues. I do think the CSL will set an attendance record this year, and maybe even an all-time record for since pro football started in 1994.
BC: I’d agree on that, averaging 30,000 last round was huge and I’m guessing the average so far this year has to be around 22 or 23k, there’s a lot of excitement around the game and its sure to continue this weekend.
CW: Yes. Anything else catch your attention this weekend, or before?
BC: I think that’s it mate, looking forward to a good weekend and hopefully no tears in the pub next week.
CW: Me too. Cheers until next time!
What do you reckon? Join the discussion below!
Author: Cameron Wilson
UK trained journalist and long-time Chinese football observer Cameron Wilson has been writing about Chinese football for over a decade…