As a neutral supporter of the Chinese Super League, it is always the first game I scan the fixture list for—Guangzhou Evergrande against Beijing Guoan. Whatever the season in recent years, it is this game which has continually stood out. On this very website, clashes between the pair were named “match of the year” on two separate occasions in the three years such an award was given. No fixture has consistently produced such high levels of performance, excitement and, indeed, controversy.
Sunday’s 2017 CSL opener was no different, with 90 minutes of pulsating attacking football interjected by controversy in the form of one of the worst refereeing performances in recent memory. The game was undoubtedly fiercely contested, but a tally of 13 yellow cards and two dismissals does little justice to what was an excellent footballing contest. Hei Xiaohu, a referee not unfamiliar with stinging criticism of his game management, simply lost control on the night as both sides refused to concede an inch.
Evergrande did what they have done for seven years now, they are a team of winners who have made a habit of fighting to the very last minute of any encounter. With Zheng Zhi, Zhang Linpeng, Gao Lin and Feng Xiaoting in their ranks, they are not a side to back down from any contest, however physical, and there was little surprise when the Cantonese side not only saw their number reduced to 10-men to level up the sides, but also secured a late winner. To win six consecutive titles you have to have character; Evergrande have it in abundance.
Yet, the big winner of the night were Guoan. This was once more the Guoan of 2011-15, stubborn to a fault at times but with enough attacking quality to keep themselves in the game. Last season may have been a struggle for the boys in green, at one point appearing a potential relegation candidate, but their eventual fifth place finish is testament to their ability to fight their way back up the table.
At their best, the capital side are bastards to play against. The Guoan of Darko Matic, Xu Yunlong, Zhou Ting and Dejan Damjanovic did not take a backwards step willingly. There were always better footballing sides but few could match Guoan for attitude, tactical discipline and sheer desire to win. It was these qualities which ensured clashes with Evergrande were never to be missed.
Even at their lowest ebb last season, it was hard to ever predict a Guoan defeat—there were simply too many proud players who would surely not relent without a fight. Their late season fightback demonstrated there was life in the old dog yet, even if it was to prove a last stand for veterans Zhou and Xu.
Guoan may now have different faces in their ranks, but the spirit remains. Ralf, much maligned last season, was a snarling pitbull in the centre of midfield on Sunday night, Lei Tenglong stood tall in defence and Zhao Hejing was his usual fully committed self prior to the reckless tackle which ended his game after 66 minutes. If they can show such spirit throughout the season, Guoan will surely be a true top of the table side once again.
With Zhang Xizhe adapting to a more central midfield role with ease alongside Brazilian Renato Augusto and Under-23 winger Tang Shi putting in a display belying his inexperience, there was also real quality on display in the Guoan ranks. If Burak Yilmaz can stay fit up front, he will surely score goals, while there is also the prospect of Jonatan Soriano’s introduction to the side in games ahead.
Guoan fought hard, and tactically they improved a lot from last season under new coach Jose. Good season ahead.
— Yixin Li (@FRsoccerYixin) March 5, 2017
Pleasantly surprised with both Shenhua and Guoan today. Two teams that are demonstrating greater integration & good tactic assimilation.
— Ricardo Lestre (@rlestre3) March 5, 2017
The truth is, as Beijing’s footballing representative, the CSL needs a strong Guoan and suffered as a consequence of their decline last year. For all of Jiangsu, Hebei and Shanghai SIPG’s spending, it is Guoan who have shown they can truly get under Evergrande’s skin on a consistent basis. They are still the only side to have beaten the Cantonese side when it truly mattered—see Shao Jiayi’s 2014 free-kick winner at Tianhe.
The aftermath of Sunday night’s clash has been dominated by talk of refereeing and yellow cards. But the focus should instead be on what was a tremendous footballing spectacle on a weekend when some of the CSL’s opening fixtures made even the purist of Chinese football fans wonder why they bother. This was two warriors trading blows for 12 rounds—literally at times—before a last round knock-out. Paulinho—the game’s outstanding player—dealt the fatal blow on the night, but Evergrande had been wobbling themselves.
The rematch at Gongti in July is not to be missed, but it is now for Guoan to show in advance of that clash that this was no one-off performance. For their indefatigable fans’ sake, let’s hope they are back to being those single-minded bastards once again. The CSL will be all the better for it.