Ramires, Choi Yong-soo and disappearing Jo – Jiangsu Suning look forward to 2017 after upbeat 2016

The 2016 season arrived with a new name, a quintet of shiny foreign players, and a topped-up bundle of expectations. The club is certainly far cry from the relegation tickling that went on 2013-2015 and though only the cheekiest of fans could have demanded immediate success, the pre-season game of transfer record smashing did its trick of raising expectations.

Those fickle things called feelings

Realistic Jiangsu fans can no doubt calmly jot down a plethora of positives; a league dominance that held off defeat until mid-May, the back of Petrescu, the arrival of one of Asia’s brightest young (ish) managers in Choi Yong-soo, the eye peeling performances of Roger Martinez…oh, and finishing a comfortable second place.

And yet, pessimistic fans may well feel Suning’s season could be defined by its inability to control roughly 40 minutes of football in the team’s two pivotal matches. First there was abjectly forfeiting an AFC knockout place during the final 20 minutes of group football against Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors.

Second was floundering in the face of Evergrande’s attacking onslaught in the closing stages of CFA Cup Final. The scrappy scenes at the final whistle only seemed to ramify the sense of Jiangsu’s footballing immaturity- although, perhaps a rambunctious ending was fitting for a game that ultimately could only ever amount to a strong statement of intent.

Not that Guangzhou will be shivering in their boots (it tends to keep pretty warm down south), but, at certain points in the season, Jiangsu certainly made their encroaching presence known.

The games, the players, the cups, and Jô

The elimination by early May from the AFC was a bitter setback and one that ultimately cost Dan Petrescu his job. If part of the logic in signing a European champion in Ramires was to give experience to a side that has often struggled in tight continental games, then the Brazilian missed the memo with a red card that saw him suspended for the away game in Tokyo. Suning didn’t win away from home and the Binh Duong game, in particular, had a haunting echo of the team’s lackluster loss to Burinam United in 2013. Perhaps lessons hadn’t been learnt and experience not gained.

The CSL performance was more than simply good, it was a giddy ride of fun with Choi adding technical finesse and tactical nous to Petrescu’s strong attacking foundation. But, make no mistake, Choi has been hired for his continental success with FC Seoul and he will be judged by the team’s performance in 2017’s AFC.

The league offered much solace to that fatal slump against Jeonbuk and was only interrupted by oddly timed pit stops. The Nanjing side performed ably in big time league games, with belly warming home & away wins against Shanghai SIPG & Beijing Guoan.

The side only lost two league games against top seven opposition and the Nanjing Olympic Sports Center became something of a fortress – only the last ditch cup game against Scolari’s bruisers souring the sense of impenetrability.

However, Suning’s 57 points is notably lower than second placed teams from the past three seasons and represents a league wide tightening. Additionally, placing fifth in the league in terms of goals conceded indicates an area that can be improved with Yang Xiaotian at left back recurrently proving a weak point.

Jiangsu more frequently found frustration against those wallowing around the relegation zone, struggling against the likes of Shijiazhuang and hapless Hangzhou, made overhauling Evergrande mathematically unlikely.

In all, 10 points were dropped against that dire trio. The league was lost by 7.

The 3-0 defeat to Hangzhou was distinctly meek, with the absence of Ramires for 65-odd minutes throwing a shroud of question marks over the side’s midfield capabilities and more generally the strength in depth beyond Zhang Xiaobin and Wu Xi. It’s somewhat fickle to try and find a unifying weakness across these games of lost opportunities but a no malarkey poacher might have pushed the team over the line.

This is the point at which the writer acknowledges the sometime-footballer/sometime-journeyman bobble of hair known as Jô. The season started brightly in the first 10ish games, but true to the form of his career, he vanished.

The performances of Teixeria (11 goals and 7 assists) and Martinez (10 goals and 4 assists) were as beguilingly inventive as have been seen in this pocket of East China, but sometimes this fell into over-reliance- a point exemplified in the defeat to Chongqing in which both players were missing from the starting eleven.

The future…hoping it’s not Evergreen

Divining which way things will swing for Nanjing in 2017 is about as haphazard as hitting the bowling alley with a wrecking ball. Bluntly put, the Nanjing side must once again try to topple Evergrande. If birds have perches, then Guangzhou’s occupation on top of CLS is akin to a glamorously flushed out tree house complete with cozy views over the other 15 teams. Logic suggests they’ll continue waltzing through their obnoxiously everlasting sunset, but then logic suggests key parts of Scolari’s side are aging, logic whispers second season Jackson Martinez is scary, logic proffers complacency, logic points to experience….and on ad nauseam

This is not to blindly suggest 2017 will be a two horse affair, on the contrary, next season’s competition promises to intensify and if Choi fails to add the solid system he has in place, the team will slide with Shanghai’s duopoly, Hebei Fortune, and the rest eager to challenge.

The squad needs Chinese National team midfielders (good luck with that one!), a left back, a striker in the mold of Jermaine Defoe (as if), and a clone of Roger Martinez…but who are we newbies to start getting demanding?

Author: Richard Whiddington

Inhabits Wuxi. Consumes football. Runs marathons.

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