Ten matches into a slog that could include as many as 51 fixtures – triple trophy haul, anyone? – Shanghai SIPG looks solid in the ACL and the CSL. (Unless matches go to penalties, of course.)
god no, not again…
Ahem, well, if Oscar hadn’t missed two — two! — chances from The Spot against Urawa last week and Hulk hadn’t followed that up with a miss of his own against Tianjin Quanian this weekend, Shanghai SIPG would be locked into first in it’s Champion’s League group and atop the Super League table.
Despite this oddity — aren’t you thinking to yourself, “Damn, I could have made at least one of those three” — the Red Eagles have won seven of their first ten with their new, ¥95,000,000 manager, André Villas-Boas, need only one point from their final two Champion’s League group matches to clinch advancement to the Round of 16 (where Jiangsu Suning possibly awaits) and sit as this is written at second on the CSL table behind the surprising Shandong Luneng.
Can Villas-Boas repeat Porto, Zenit feat?
Over his career, Villas-Boas has won over 60% of his matches at a manager, but he has not worn well. In fact, he is, rather astonishingly, at his sixth managerial post at the age of 39. The longest he’s lasted anywhere is just over two years. SIPG may eventually regret booting Sven-Göran Eriksson, who is laying waste to League One as the Shenzhen FC manager. But probably not this year: Villas-Boas won titles in his first go-round with FC Porto and Zenit St. Petersburg and SIPG clearly has a shot to replicate that success.
Uh, guys, games are two halves
To this point, SIPG have rarely put together two strong halves in one match. After a desultory first half, they dominated Guangzhou Evergrande at Tianhe in the second half. They looked unstoppable against Urawa, but only in the first half of the first match and the second half of the second match. They took their foot off the pedal against Yanbian, Shandong and Western Sydney and were, truth be told, a bit lucky against FC Seoul.
That said, Shanghai has had periods of playing the most beautiful soccer in Asia. Probably the most important decision Villas-Boas has made is to hand the keys to the offense to Hulk, whose resurgence has provided SIPG with the most creative, chance-producing offense in the CSL. We all know Hulk Shoot Good, but he’s also an astonishingly creative passer, which is why Wu Lei, who seems to be drifting in and out of focus this year, has scored some of the easiest goals in the CSL.
Yan for first team PRC! Defenders, not so much
It might be time to think about Yan Junling for first-string on the national team; the rangy, athletic keeper single-handedly has kept SIPG in a couple of games this year, most notably against Shandong. Yan also helped stave off a furious Urawa rally at Shanghai Stadium and his free kicks have gotten deeper and more accurate this year. In particular, he’s turned picking out Hulk downfield into an art form.
One of the things that makes SIPG the best show in the league is the Red Eagles back line, which has generally been good, but rarely seems to get through a match without at least one massive blunder. SIPG games in the CSL have featured 18 goals, second in the league, and in the ACL, 13 goals in four matches, which is a lot but ranks only in the middle of the pack because Eastern FC and Western Sydney are giving up goals by the truckload.
Zhang, Wei and the U23 Fiasco
Villas-Boas continues to extend his middle finger to the CFA, yanking U23 starter Zhang Huachen earlier and earlier. (Zhang was only allowed to wander around the pitch for 12 minutes against Tianjin Quanjian.) It’s impossible to know whether this will have long-term consequences, but, as previously noted, Villas-Boas has never been a long-term kind of guy.
Zhang’s exits leave SIPG with only two real substitutions to make. To date, Villas-Boas has only been burned once by this: after an injury, SIPG had to finish the game against Yanbian with 10 men. It didn’t effect the outcome, but god help AVB if it happens against Beijing or Shenhua.
Villas-Boas does have a palatable U23 option: 21-year-old forward Wei Shihao, who scored the best goal of the year for SIPG, a late-game, long-distance screamer against Shandong that clinched a victory at Shanghai Stadium. The problem, from SIPG’s point of view, is who sits if Wei plays. It’s not going to be Hulk or Wu Lei. That leaves Elkeson, who was benched at one point but has scored four goals. That’d be a pretty gutsy move.
And there is a longer-term consideration. SIPG doesn’t have much skin in Wei Shihao’s development; he’s on loan from Portuguese side Belenenses, who own his contract through June, 2018.
Send Oscar to therapy?
With Hulk resting because of a knee ding, Oscar was awfully good as SIPG field general against Urawa in Tokyo, but the one-two punch of two blown penalty kicks in that match and Hulk stepping back in to run things against Tianjin Quanjian — you have to wonder if that will prey on Oscar as time goes by. There’s a history here of foreigners checking out mentally at some point before their CSL contracts expire. Tevez .
SIPG is in the conversation to win both CSL and ACL
With apologies to Guangzhou R&F, who don’t have the firepower to sustain their hot start, Shandong, SIPG and Evergrande look to have separated themselves from the rest of the CSL. There hasn’t been anything from SIPG’s matches against those two teams or other early days matches that would make you think that anyone’s going to run away with this thing. That is to say, Evergrande may or may not win the CSL for a seventh straight time, but it’s going to be a dogfight.
The same can be said about the Champion’s League. The team with the most points in the eastern half of the competition so far is Multiple Personality Disorder candidate Jiangsu Suning, and Muang Thang United are putting together a Leicesterish run, but one of SIPG, Evergrande, Suwon Bluewings and Urawa are going to win the east. (Maybe the whole thing. Nobody in the western half has dominated. All four groups there are up for grabs.)