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Igloo Talk: Hulk, the cup, Shandong’s woes and can slippery Sven survive at Shanghai SIPG?

It’s hot outside, so Shanghai Ultra is keen to escape into the cold confines of the Igloo Pub. Bcheng joins him with Bjork playing on the radio and a selection of traditional pub eats imported from a budget UK frozen foods store. Hulk is on the agenda this week – is he worth the money or is he just a blubbery whale to be hunted? The head on the beers is thick this week as the duo sport white beards, Ultra asks if Bcheng has blown a seal, but Bcheng has a volcanic eruption of his own to enjoy in the form of Guoan’s victory over Shenhua in the China derby. Meanwhile there is time to dip their toes into the geothermic pools of Jinan, Shandong, as they once again wonder why a bunch of overpaid poseurs can’t win a knockout game against a team from a league totally reliant on foreign talent. Seems it would take a contestant from Magnus Magnusson’s Mastermind to work out what’s going on there. Elsewhere, despite much huffing and Puffin, Shanghai International Port Group’s form book is a chilling read of late, Sven appears to be gazing at the Blue Lagoon to the north, can he escape being frozen out? Pull up a pue and join us, mine’s is a straight whisky – with ice!

BCheng: We have the CFA Cup, a full weekend of league matches as we reach the halfway point and, of course, plenty of football from the weekend past, most of all the excitement of a China derby.

Shanghai Ultra: Yes a lot indeed to talk about this week, let’s get straight to the derby. I predicted defeat for Shenhua and I was right, not their worst performance at Gongti, but certainly it looked like a standard away from home poor show from Shenhua. Galling that we have your former manager of two years in charge now, and you only have a caretaker, but that made zero difference to anything.

BC: Yes, the thing is, for the first 45 minutes it looked like I’d be right as both sides were allergic to creating scoring chances. Then early into the 2nd half, Yilmasz was brought on and the attack started looking far more dynamic, Zhang Xizhe scored twice in quick succession and that pretty much ended things.

SU: It did. Although I have to say Shenhua’s disallowed goal was very controversial, I had a good look at it and it’s difficult to tell if there was a handball or not, Li Jianbin actually knocks the ball in with his face. Referee Ma Ning was standing right in front of it with a perfect view and gave the goal, then strangely changed his mind. But anyway I don’t Shenhua deserved much from the game, the refereeing controversy just became a smokescreen for Shenhua’s bigger problems. Zhang Xizhe looked very good and took his goals well, I’m still wondering why he couldn’t even get a chance at Wolfsburg.

BC: Yeah, it was the Zhang Xizhe show, his first goal was more down to bad goalkeeping, but the second was an absolute thing of beauty, Yu Dabao found him with a pass that split three Shenhua defenders and Zhang easily went around the keeper.

SU: Yeah the first goal was a joke, Wang Shouting proving what a limited and fairly useless player he is by simply being nowhere near his man. Can this result be the springboard for a better second half of the season for Guoan?

BC: I think their springboard was the firing of Zaccheroni, since then they’ve gone seven without a loss (including last night’s CFA Cup win), with only two of those matches being draws. I can’t see them getting into an ACL spot (they are 9 points away), but they are definitely safe and their focus, much like Shenhua for that matter, should really be on the CFA Cup at this point. That does leave out that they have a game in hand, so it could be down to 6 points away, but still, it’s probably too big a gap to make up.

SU: Yeah I didn’t think Guoan would remain in the dangerzone for very long. This season however things have been shaken up a bit, there is not a “Big 4” as such right now. And we know how much the Chinese media likes to use that term.

BC: That is a big issue with me, the overuse of that term. There is no such thing as a big 4 if it changes every year and that’s the case right now in Chinese football. Plus it’s not even a “big 4” because they are referring to the 4 clubs that make it into the ACL, one of those sides finished 9th last year.

SU: Yep and the current second-placed team of course were in the CL1 last year so it’s all a bit daft.

BC: In the past I might add more teams, but right now in China, there is only a big 1, Guangzhou Evergrande. Nobody else has been in the ACL year in, year out and of course, they are the five time (and presumably six time) league champions. There are big clubs like Shandong and Beijing, though both are going through rough seasons.

SU: Yeah. It really depends how you want to class teams. Shandong and Guoan have been fairly consistent for a number of years, everyone else except Evergrande have not. Speaking of Shandong, what can we say about them? I saw them last night and I can’t say they definitely didn’t look like a team at the bottom of the league which is fairly shocking considering the talent in their squad.

BC: It’s an odd situation, we’ve brought it up almost every week and every week it leaves me scratching my head. They should be much better than they are, its just confusing why they are in such a downward spiral. The league this year is all over the place, how else can you explain Hangzhou winning only their third match of the season against current 2nd place side Hebei last weekend?

SU: Yes that was also a very surprising result, but if you said to me a year ago, that we would be taking about Hebei getting beat by Hangzhou as a surprise a year later, I’d be even more shocked.

BC: Maybe not by Hangzhou, them beating anyone is a surprise any year, but yeah, would never have guessed they’d be where they are. They are looking even better having gone through to the CFA Cup quarterfinals as well after eeking out a one goal win over provincial rivals Shijiazhuang last night.

SU: Indeed. Well, their chances are pretty slight lets face it. Especially after Evergrande beat Jiangsu 2-0 last Friday. They made it look pretty easy I think.

BC: Hard to imagine Evergrande conceding a 6 point lead but its been a strange season, never say never. That said, I know we’ll be focusing on their match this weekend in a little bit. Let’s first look at last night, we have a cup quarterfinals where only one lower league side is left and once again, Shenhua get them.

SU: Yeah it is odd how it works out, although those lower league teams have had to knock out CSL clubs to get to face Shenhua.

BC: Of course, its good that there are at least a few “upsets”, though Quanjian, who have aspirations to go up into the top flight, defeating Liaoning, who are a lesser CSL side, is no surprise.

SU: I tend to agree, but Quanjian have had a pretty mediocre CL1 season so far, that said, they definitely represent Shenhua with the proverbial banana skin.

BC: They struggled for awhile, I think much more was expected from them due to what they spent in the off-season, but they are still within striking distance of promotion.

SU: Cannavaro was an interesting appointment, but really with the talent they have and they money they spent, anything less than the championship will be a major failure, I wonder how they view the cup? Something they really want to win? Imagine if they did and they got into the ACL, wouldn’t that be something.

BC: It would, especially if they failed to gain promotion, would be a very odd situation, but I can’t imagine they will place a lot of emphasis on the Cup, their focus has to be on promotion.

SU: I’m still disappointed to see not all teams take the cup as seriously as they should. There’s really not an awful amount of football to be played since the league is only 30 games, granted its different if you are in the ACL, but the bigger teams are better equipped to handle more games. For teams who involved in relegation or promotion, I think it’s lame to view a cup match as something they can’t handle.

BC: You see it the world over, though. Plus, with the CFA Cup being over two legs from the quarterfinals on, that’s an additional six matches for the finalists, not a small number. I think you have to weigh where your priorities are and not everyone will place emphasis on the Cup. I can’t imagine Hebei will play all their starters in the quarterfinals, especially as they have Guoan at home a few days after the first leg. That’s why I think it’s an ideal situation for teams like Shenhua and Guoan who have nothing left to play for in the league.

SU: True. The quarterfinals over two legs is unnecessary I think, this is why I have been banging on about making the draw totally random at each stage like most domestic cup competitions elsewhere, that way the luck of the draw can decide. Although I do like straight to penalties after 90 minutes, I think 90 minutes is enough time to try and score a goal in normal time. I have to say though, Shenhua’s team the other night contained a few experimental selections, not sure that is appropriate considering Shenhua have absolutely nothing to play for in the league anymore.

BC: An actual draw would add to the excitement but hell, its worked out well for Shenhua the past two seasons. I would have preferred avoiding Evergrande three times in two weeks, but at least it will make things exciting.

SU: It has. I do think its time to go back to a one-legged final though, they could simply reserve several venues in different parts of the country and then make the selection after the finalists are decided. I mean, the final itself last year took place nearly a month after the end of the season which is just bizarre.

BC: It draws out the season a little longer, which definitely helps us out, but yeah, one leg at a neutral site would definitely be great, but it would be difficult working out the site and fortunately we’ve been blessed with some exciting two leg clashes.

SU: So the cup is going to be the main focus for our teams. And I must say that I think Evergrande are going to be giving their all in it since they are of course out of the ACL already. An exciting contest beckons.

BC: Yeah, we’ll have plenty of time to talk about it in the next few weeks, as a Guoan fan, I hate it that we’ve come up against Evergrande, but at least it should make for some exciting football and if Beijing manages to win, that will make it all the sweeter.

SU: For sure. So change of tak, how about Shanghai International Port Group’s latest signing?

BC: I think its an odd move, at 55 million euros, its a definite “China price”, anyone else could have probably got him for half that. Plus, I think he’s very similar to Elkeson in his build and style of play, so it’s an unusual choice. However, his talent can’t be questioned and I’d have to guess he’s going to score a lot in the CSL.

SU: I think it’s an absolutely amazing waste of money and I don’t even think he is worth anywhere near 55 mil Euro. I don’t think there is anyone can argue that there are not better ways to spend 55 million Euro than on one player, no matter who he is, instead of long term development projects, which Chinese football desperately needs. But of course, are Shanghai International Port Group in it for the long term? Doubtful.

BC: I think there are two distinct arguments there, one is that he is obviously not worth 55 million euros, take off about 30 million of that to get closer to what he’s worth. The other, “long term football development”? I’m not having it, it isn’t an either/or, and I don’t know of a single Chinese club that is saying, “we aren’t going to pay these huge transfer fees and instead put all that money into developing grassroots football.” Look at clubs like Shenhua that don’t even have a youth team in place, what team is focused on the long term? It’s a problem in Chinese football but if we stop the big spending tomorrow, it won’t solve these issues. Too many Chinese clubs aren’t being smart and are willing to pay the “China price”, that’s a problem and it will guarantee that it continues, but at the end of the day what matters is will Hulk perform on the pitch and I’m confident he’s going to deliver.

SU: It isn’t an either/or, but when one is happening, (massive money signings) and the other is not (long term investment), then the clubs make it that way. In any case, that’s 55 million that could and should have spent on a great many things which could deliver long term benefit, and there is zero excuse for not doing that considering the situation Chinese football is in. BTW Shenhua do have a youth side now, they didn’t before. I wouldn’t be so confident Hulk will deliver, there is a long list of big money signings in China who failed.

BC: Haha, had to take that little shot at Shenhua. I did think they’d finally created a youth side, but they went almost 20 years without one, so it shows that even clubs who’ve been involved in football for a long time here don’t (or didn’t) have a longterm outlook. In any case, staying on the subject of SIPG, they lost to R&F in the Cup and have been struggling in the league, they travel to Hebei this weekend, if they lose is Sven gone?

SU: Shenhua had a youth side before by Zhu Jun took over in 2007, before he ditched it and let the training base fall into disrepair. It follows when you think about it, given Zhu’s attitude to Chinese talent and how he sold it off as quick as possible. For Shanghai International Port Group, they are on a downer, no wins in six games and out of the cup. At least they have the ACL. Sven to go? No job in the CSL is ever safe as we know, its a real possibility.

BC: Are expectations too high at SIPG? They were runners up last season to the surprise of pretty much everyone and so I think there were automatic expectations that they’d be one of the contenders this season, however a lot of other teams strengthened themselves while SIPG only brought in Elkeson. Their recent streak has been a nightmare, but they are in 4th place as well as in the ACL quarterfinals, not a bad situation, all things considered. There’s a month in a half until the ACL restarts, I think if you’re going to make a move, it has to be pretty soon or else it runs the risk of destabilizing the side in the ACL, which is pretty much all the side has left to play for.

SU: I think they were a bit lucky to finish 2nd last year in all honesty. I think bringing in only one player was refreshing, continuity is so often thrown out the window in the CSL as the domestic core of the team is relatively young and strong and with Conca, Kim Ju-oung, Elkeson and Gyan,, that’s a really strong line-up on paper, Kouassi is more one for the future but he’s already proven his worth I think.

BC: Yes, but if they were lucky to finish 2nd last year and a number of other teams improved considerably, their continuity means its no surprise they are where they are. It will be interesting to see what happens, especially against an upstart side like Hebei, who needs all three points if they are to keep pace with Evergrande, it’s definitely this weekend’s most exciting match.

SU: I’m not surprised at where they are, I think they got the momentum last year and kept on going and at least they kept the race interesting. Definitely Shanghai International Port Group v Hebei is the match of the round – how do you see it unfolding?

BC: Should be plenty exciting, but the way this season has gone for both sides, I tend to see Hebei finding a way to eek out a win.

SU: Hard to call. Although it is said Hulk will make his debut, a lot of expensive foreign talent is going to be appearing in this game, despite everything we have talked about earlier I think there is a pattern over the years of new foreign signings usually having a honeymoon period where they make a significant impact before they get disillusioned with the less than perfect aspects of the game here. So I am going to stick my neck out and go for a Shanghai International Port Group victory.

BC: Interesting choice. Of course there’s another match that most would have expected to be very exciting a few months ago as Evergrande travels to Shandong. You have to wonder when things will start going Shandong’s way, but with the way they played in midweek, I don’t think things are going to start this weekend.

SU: Yeah we keep having the same discussions about Shandong, it was only a couple of weeks ago they would have again been participants in the “game of interest” against Shanghai International Port Group, but now Shandong really attract interest now for purely the wrong reasons. Actually a learned and great friend of mine, and a keen observer of the great sport of soccer, reckons Jucilei is the weak link in Shandong’s team – he’s consistently below par but basically can’t be dropped because despite being Brazilian, he’s Palestinian somehow, and therefore an Asian +1 player.

BC: On top of that, Alionso is already on his way out and it also appears that Tardelli wants out, so unless they bring in a second Asian player, they are pretty much stuck with him. Honestly though, their issue isn’t one player, its the whole club culture, we’ve gone over this more than enough though. On the pitch, I can’t see Evergrande not winning this one with ease.

SU: Neither can I. Is it to early to start discussing if Shandong can avoid relegation?

BC: I think so, they still have a game in hand and are only three points away from safety. There’s plenty of time left and let’s see how things go under Magath. If we get to only 10 matches left or so and they are still where they are now, then we can start having that conversation.

SU: I think that’s right. Magath is a very interesting choice. BTW I can tell you an interesting fact, do you remember the Disgrace of Gijon?

BC: I do not.

SU: It was a fixed match at the 1982 World Cup when Austria let Germany beat them 1-0 in the knowledge that such a scoreline would let both sides progress, and is the reason why all final group match games now kick off simultaneously. Magath was playing for Germany that day, let’s hope he doesn’t get tempted into swapping favours in China.

BC: Hahaha, that’s right. Well, yeah, if Shandong are in that situation toward the end of the season, they have enough guanxi from down the years that I have a feeling they’ll definitely survive. Speaking of the relegation zone, some interesting battles between lower table sides like Yanbian-Hangzhou and R&F-Shijiazhuang. These sort of matches will work out that relegation picture pretty quickly.

SU: Heh heh. Yeah I can’t see Shandong really going down either. So should be wrap it up for this week?

BC: Yes. A great close to another pub, and a lot of civility considering yet another Shenhua defeat at Gongti, cheers mate.

SU: Indeed after all these years of abusing you it’s time to be civil, until your next visit to Hongkou….

BC: Cheers!

SU: Until next time.

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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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