Friday evening saw Guizhou Hengfeng Zhicheng (henceforth, Guizhou) take on Liaoning FC in the Guiyang Olympic Sports Centre, with the opening match of the 2017 Chinese Super League finishing in a 1-1 draw.
With a penalty given at either end, converted by James Chamanga and Nikica Jelavic respectively, and a red card for Liaoning goalkeeper Shi Xiaotian the game had incident but was largely devoid of quality.
But what did we learn from Friday night’s clash?
Both sides are set to struggle
Well, perhaps this wasn’t something learned as such—with both sides predicted to struggle—but rather confirmation of the long season which doubtless awaits both teams.
To their credit, Guizhou overcame the lack of home support to still more than match their experienced rivals. However, there was a distinct lack of quality in the final third from both sides.
Of 25 shots attempted between the two sides, just five were on target, while the ball was in play for little over 46 minutes—well short of the AFC’s stated 60 minute target.
Even when Liaoning were forced to play 25 minutes with a midfielder in goal, Guizhou could muster just one attempt that required Wang Hao’s intervention. All in all, it was a forgettable encounter.
Under-23 ruling open to abuse
Perhaps the most noteworthy action of the tie was Liaoning coach Ma Lin’s decision to withdraw his designated Under-23 starter Wang Qiao after just 16 minutes of the contest.
It had been noted before the game that the rules put in place did not state that the player had to remain on the pitch, or be replaced by another underage player. However, the CFA had stated they hoped clubs would treat the ruling in the spirit it was intended.
Post-game Ma insisted that he had seen weakness on Wang Qiao’s side of the pitch in the early minutes, and with his side ahead he was justified in replacing the youngster to preserve the scoreline.
It was an unsatisfactory explanation, though the fact Liaoning did not have any further substitutions remaining to bring on a goalkeeper once reduced to ten-men did prove amusing given the early switch.
Guizhou, to their credit, started with two Under-23 players who played a combined 167 minutes on the night.
Nikica Jelavic still a handful
It is fair to say that Jelavic’s solitary season in China League One with Beijing Renhe did not set the league alight, but the Croat put in the kind of performance on his debut for Guizhou that suggests he could be a real asset this season.
Not only did the former Rangers and Everton man convert a penalty he himself had one, he also caused the sending off of the helpless Shi having sprung the Liaoning offside trap and sought to round the ‘keeper.
Jelavic’s night, though, should have involved scoring the winner. It simply had to. With minutes to play he found himself one-on-one with the man in the gloves once again—this time midfielder Wang Hao. Yet, showing a lack of composure belying his experience, Jelavic blazed his shot over the bar.
Despite the shocking miss, it was a good showing from the veteran—and one which should keep striking rival Michael Olunga away from the starting lineup for a few games longer.
Foreign player combinations set to vary
In China League One, where three foreign players per match has been the norm for some time, roughly 95% of sides opt to sign either three foreign attacking players; or two attacking players plus a centre-back or defensive midfielder.
With Guizhou on Friday night this was the case with Jelavic supported by Tjaronn Chery (#10 role) in attack, while Ryan McGowan started at the heart of the defensive line.
Liaoning, though, bucked the trend and offered a glimpse of the variations possible when choosing three from five to take the pitch.
Deciding to play one up front away from home, the North-Eastern side omitted star striker Anthony Ujah for Chinese forward Yang Xu. Instead, they used their three overseas players in defence (Assani Lukimya), central midfield (James Chamanga) and on the wing (Robbie Kruse).
Of course, not all sides are blessed with Chinese forwards of the quality of Yang but to omit record signing Ujah was a major shock. However, it is a ‘defensive’ usage of foreign resources expected to be repeated later this weekend.
Knives are out for the CSL
Anybody who paid even the slightest attention to Friday night’s match realised, or saw from a number of Twitter accounts commenting on the matter, that the game was played behind closed doors due to Guizhou supporters’ misdemeanours at the end of last season.
Predictably, though, that was not going to stop a number of football Twitter accounts looking to score easy points by posting pictures of empty stands and making a comment about CSL spending. The delicious irony being that it was over-zealous support which brought about the lack of attendance.
The CSL has brought massive focus upon itself with its spending and, rightly or wrongly, there will be those looking to gloat in tow. On this occasion, however, they have thankfully been shown up for their ignorance. Banter!