Following a tough away defeat to Shijiazhuang in round two and an international break, Friday saw Hangzhou Greentown welcome Shandong Luneng to the Huang Long Stadium. Having suffered a 1-4 ACL home defeat to Seoul in their previous fixture and with both teams sitting in mid-table following a win and a draw from their opening two games, Greentown were looking to build on their promising start to the season against a dangerous Shandong team.
Spiranovic in welcome return
Having not long returned following his goal scoring exploits for Australia, Tim Cahill started amongst the substitutes, with Davy Claude Angan coming in for him in attack. At the back, Matthew Spiranovic, making his first appearance of the season, came in for Cheng Mou Yi. A mid-season signing in 2015, Spiranovic played a crucial role in Hangzhou’s successful battle against relegation and despite the good start this year, Greentown will no doubt be better for his return at the heart of the defence.
Shandong featured last season’s league top scorer, Aloisio who spearheaded a strong team featuring Diego Tardelli in attack and China’s number one, Wang Da Lei between the posts. Notable absentees from the Shandong line-up were new signing Gil and experienced attacking midfielder, Wang Yong Po. Even with these omissions, Greentown fans would be forgiven for expecting a tough evening against a team who finished third in 2015 .
Greentown take their chances
With a large share of possession in the opening passages of play, Hangzhou were lucky not to fall behind after five minutes with Tardelli wastefully firing over from inside the box when most would have expected him to score. Despite this early scare, Greentown and were soon ahead.
With the expected mid season return of Anselmo Ramon, Denilson Gambionetta needs to do more in the coming months to justify his inclusion in the squad. Bursting down the right, it was his run which was to lead Greentown taking the lead in the eighth minute. Despite the initial passage of play being cleared, Hangzhou regained possession before Feng Gang lofted a beautiful 40 yard pass for Luo Jing who waited for it to drop over his shoulder and volley it through the legs of the goalkeeper from 12 yards. An excellent Hangzhou goal.
Soon after going behind, Shandong again showed their attacking threat with Tardelli squaring for Aloisio, who would have scored had it not been for Hangzhou right back Oh Beom-Seok making a last ditch block, yards from goal. The Korean international, having joined in the most recent window, has become an integral member of the Hangzhou defence and his experience and quality has been clear to see since his arrival from Suwon Bluewings.
Throughout the match, Greentown were happy to allow Shandong to have the larger share of possession without giving them to settle, with an effective pressing game throughout. Soaking up pressure well and looking dangerous on the break, the 13th minute saw Greentown extend their lead. Goal scorer, Luo Jing bending a pass from the halfway line for Davy Angan to slot home from the edge of the box. Yet another excellent goal for Hangzhou, with Angan justifying his inclusion in style.
21 year old Luo Jing, a graduate of the Greentown youth system, is quickly making a mockery of my decision to sell him for peanuts on Football Manager, having been one of the players of this very young season so far. Playing against Shandong in central midfield, his pressing game never gave the Shandong midfield enough time on the ball and after producing two moments of magic, he earned a well-deserved man of the match award.
Despite Shandong having the ball in the net, Aloisio correctly had a goal ruled out for offside in the 31st minute, with his arm straying just offside. Another let off for Greentown, whose marking failed them here in what otherwise was a resolute defensive display, with defensive midfielder Chen Zhong Liu and Spiranovic standing out.
Hangzhou stand firm in an excellent second half defensive display
Half time saw Gambionetta, who had one of his better halves since his arrival, surprisingly replaced by Tim Cahill. However, with Greentown largely looking to defend and stifle the Shandong threat, he had little opportunity to do more than his defensive duties.
In what proved to be a scrappy half, Shandong were largely reduced to long range shots, with Spiranovic having the integrity of his ribs examined by a particluarly venomous long range effort. Facing a deep Greentown defence, Shandong never really threatened to find a way back into the match and Greentown still occasionally creating threats of their own, with Feng Gang having a free kick pushed wide.
Ultimately it was a game of few chances and Hangzhou safely saw out a well-deserved 2-0 victory.
With 61% of possession overall, Shandong will be kicking themselves after failing to score from a number of good chances. However, the quality of performance exhibited by the Greentown defence, meant Zhang Lei had no real save of note to make. This, coupled with scoring two of their three shots on target saw the young Greentown team see off a dangerous Shandong unit. The celebrations at the final whistle showing the the magnitude of the result, even at this early stage of the season.
Looking ahead to round four
Next up, Greentown head to Tianjin, who, like Hangzhou, flirted with relegation last season. Injuries aside, manager Hong Myung-Bo will likely be reluctant to change the starting line up with the only decision being whether to restore Cahill to the starting XI. It is likely Gambionetta will make way for Cahill, with Angan, who put in a big shift against Shandong, surely having done enough to keep his place on the back of an impressive performance.
This Greentown squad must be full of confidence and are visibly improving with every game. Therefore, the boys in Green should head north, knowing they can get a result if they match the level of performance shown on Friday.
Even at this early stage, the season ahead really is looking bright for the Greentown faithful.