If the interjection of the international break prolonged the sense among Jiangsu fans that the league campaign, in contrast to dominant AFC Champions League performances, was yet to get underway, the impression continued on a sun-baked afternoon against Liaoning Whowin on which Choi Yong-soo’s side fell to 3-1 defeat.
In the prematch build up, Jiangsu’s manager made reference to the disheartening memory of his side’s last visit to the northeastern province, a 1-0 defeat at the end of the 2016 season, and yet this performance might prove far more chastening – especially given the South Korea’s eulogizing the focused 10 day build up the squad spent preparing for the match.
CHINESE SUPER LEAGUE
Liaoning Whowin 3
J.Chamanga (PG) 30
Yang Yu 87
Wang Song 38
It seemed the perfect occasion to announce the start of Jiangsu’s CSL campaign with both sides arriving at the Shenyang Olympic Sports Center winless and sharing a sort of mutual post-winter hibernation.
Yet both Liaoning and Jiangsu started tentatively, without ambition, or any notion of tempo. The highlight of the opening 20 minutes was produced by Wang Song who, in a fit of mal-coordinated excitement, kicked more of the corner flag than the ball itself, prompting a confused stand-off for possession.
While Hong Jeong-ho, who performed well for South Korea during the international break, and Li Ang looked comfortable with Liaoning’s long balls towards Antony Ujah, the side looked susceptible to set pieces failing to clear a handful of corners in the opening 25 minutes. And the manner in which Liaoning took the lead befitted this inadequacy of Choi’s backline though, truthfully, the title of “leader” was unworthy of either side.
Miscommunication between Zhang Sipeng and his defense led to the ball looping to the feet of Ujah whose hard hit shot from 10 yards struck the outstretched arm of Hong in the 29th minute. James Chamanga strolled up to the penalty with the nonchalance of an evening jogger and lifted the ball high into the net.
Jiangsu has looked woefully short in the creativity department so far this season and Choi’s confirmation of Wu Xi’s injury prior to the match came as a blow, especially since his duo of cameo roles for the national team showed flashes of the verve and drive so needed in the side.
With the additional absences of Roger Martinez (injury) and Alex Teixeira (suspended) the question seemed to be how the likes of Ji Xiang and Wang Song would respond- certainly, one imagines these are precious opportunities for the pair to offer competition to Nanjing’s first choice attacking pivot.
Wang showed something for why he was signed from Guangzhou R&F in the summer when Jiangsu equalized in the 38th minute. Despite not so much as tickling Shi Xiaotian’s goal for nearly 40 minutes, the Nanjing-based had been fouled often and it capitalized when Ramires was hacked down outside of the area and Wang dipped the ensuing free kick with superb curve and dip beyond the clutches Shi.
Gao Tianyi, Jiangsu’s U23 player, should have scored in the dying seconds of the half when the midfielder latched onto a long ball and shrugged off a meek push in the back only to see a double whammy of ill-timed shots saved by Shi, a player whose performance throughout explains something of his January call-up to the Chinese national team.
Jiangsu carried the momentum into the second half and thoroughly energized the contest with Ji Xiang starting to make his presence known linking up smartly with Liu Jianyi and Wang Song. Liaoning duly responded to a couple of Jiangsu half-chances when Zhang was forced to flick a fierce shot over the bar from close range.
Choi had shifted to a 4-3-3 at the break with Ramires occupying increasingly advanced positions and Liu and Xie Pengfei, introduced for Gao after 55 minutes, looked to find the Brazilian on the left.
Whether because of Choi’s attacking alterations or a greater general sense of ambition from the home side, the second half opened up. Pools of space appeared in midfield that had been filled with bodies in the first half and it began to seem the sort of contest that would be decided not by virtue of quality but by sheer opportunism.
In essence, the home side capitalized on Jiangsu’s inability to do so and Ujah’s low bobbled volley in the 68th minute restored his side’s lead. It was a good-enough type of finish and any notion that Zhang might have done better with the shot was undermined by the total absence of defenders on the scene. Chamanga, who harried and scrapped all afternoon, was the creator. He had found space on the right hand side of the area, which drew the full attention the Jiangsu defense, which left Nigerian utterly unmarked.
In response, Jiangsu upped the tempo and threw on forward Gao Di in the hope of salvaging something in the final 15 minutes. But Jiangsu’s problems of penetration persisted, the full backs didn’t offer enough width, and the large gaps between the lines of midfield and attack made passing difficult.
The third goal felt inevitable and as a blunt Jiangsu attack came to an end, Liaoning pounced downfield and combined with the sort of speed and precision their opponents seemed incapable of. Ujah received the ball, shimmied inside, and when he looked up to find Jiangsu’s defense in disarray, he simply rolled the ball to Yang Yu who put an empathic spin on what was a fragmented and unconvincing game of football.