After tough times in Tokyo and Tianjin, is it time to reconsider Shanghai SIPG’s position as a Chinese and Asian favorite?
A Heavy Schedule Looms. Can SIPG Find a Way Through?
Was Shanghai SIPG faltering? There was the Oscar debacle in Tokyo and a disappointing draw against newly promoted Tianjin Quanjian. One goal in two games.
And the fixtures are starting to pile up: two ACL Group F matches, including a mid-week, 21-hours-in-the-air trip to Sydney, a CSL stretch of 10 straight weekends of action, a daft one-day rest (thank you, CFA!) for an FA Cup match against Shijiazhuang.
We got our answer this week. No. Shanghai SIPG is responding like a champion.
They did it by smothering Hebei last Friday night, allowing only one decent chance for Hebei despite yielding 55% of the possession (but only four shots at goal) and with three goals, including a gorgeous He Guan backpost pass that found Wu Lei all alone for his fourth CSL goal of the year.
Redemption for Oscar
They got a penalty from Oscar too; after a 67th minute Hebei foul in the area, and a brief conversation with Hulk, who smiled and gave a “go ahead” gesture to his Brazilian compatriot, Oscar stepped up and finally slotted one home. It must be said that Hebei keeper Cheng Yang made it nerve-wracking. Cheng guessed correctly, going to his left and giving Oscar only a small space up top to work with, but Oscar used it for his first CSL goal this year.
SIPG’s defensive blunders continued, too, of course. Hebei’s only chance to score came when Cai Huikeng did his best defensive olé right in front of the SIPG goalmouth, then panicked and dragged down a Hebei player from behind, miraculously avoiding not only a red card from referee Guan Xing, but even a foul. Thank you again, CFA. Referee training is over-rated. (Maybe Guan was busy checking the pitch for sarcastic clapping.)
SIPG Trash Seoul Men
The Hebei match preceded a mid-week match-up against a desperate FC Seoul side. The South Koreans needed a win to keep any chance of ACL advancement alive, and they came out of the gate strong.
In the tenth minute, first Wu Lei, then the SIPG back line stood as still as statues as Seoul’s Yo Ko-Han worked the ball onto SIPG keeper Yan Junling’s doorstep. Yo directed a neat little pass in front to Maurinho and the 27-year-old Brazilian couldn’t, and didn’t, miss.
But that was Seoul’s last gasp, as it turned out. A 25th minute turnover and a quick pass from Odil Akhmedov to Hulk led to a patented Hulk rocket from distance to tie things up. Five minutes later, a gorgeous Hulk pass gave SIPG defender Zhang Wei the first goal of his career.
Just before halftime, a deflected pass fell on to Wu Lei’s foot and he converted it easily to give SIPG a 3-1 lead and essentially end Seoul’s ACL chances this year.
Seoul got one back in the 70th minute — even after that, they still needed two more — but Oscar put the final nail in the opposition’s coffin in the 79th minute after yet another deflection.
The theme here is beauty — it might be more fun to watch Hulk pass than it is to watch him shoot — and lethal opportunism. Three unexpected loose balls in or near the Seoul area and three almost immediate, utterly confident strikes for goals by three different players.
One odd note for the match: perhaps because of recent tensions between China and South Korea, Seoul only had a handful of supporters at Shanghai Stadium. They were dwarfed by a turnout of 35,000 or so fans in red. There was no tension; the small police contingent guarding the visitor section spent the match casually watching from the last row.
Will SIPG Tank Against Western Sydney?
The win left SIPG with 12 points in Group F of the Eastern Zone of the ACL, tied atop the group with Urawa Red Diamonds and newly anointed by Fox Sports Asia as the ACL tournament favorite.
Going into Matchday 6, both SIPG and Urawa are assured of advancement to the Round of 16 — Seoul and Western Sydney Wanderers are out — but Urawa has the tie-breaking advantage if SIPG and Urawa finish level.
Which must be exactly how SIPG prefers it. Second place in Group F gets a home-and-home match-up with Jiangsu Suning. No travel to speak of, and an opponent that for all it’s Champion’s League success this year has been a disaster in the CSL.
Expect every starter for SIPG to miss the May 10 trip to Sydney. Anything else would be managerial malpractice.
(Urawa has to travel to Seoul, but they’ll be facing a team that has nothing to play for and important matches against top K-League teams the weekends before and after Urawa comes to town.)
Brief look at the rest of the Eastern zone of the ACL:
GROUP E: Muang Thang United against a tanking Brisbane Roar utilizing a line-up full of kids, the Thai side won 3-0 and clinched advancement to the Round of 16. Kashima Antlers are also advancing. Brisbane and Ulsan Hyundai are out.
GROUP G: Oddly, Kawasaki Frontale, in third place, is in the driver’s seat in this group. An (overwhelmingly likely) win at home on Matchday 6 against hapless Eastern SC clinches Frontale’s spot in the Round of 16.
At Tianhe on May 9, high drama: the Guangzhou Evergrande-Suwon Blue Wings winner will finish first in Group G and advance. The loser finishes in third place and is out. A draw in that match leaves Evergrande in second place, advancing, and Suwon out.
GROUP H: Jiangsu Suning clinched first place a couple of weeks ago.
Jeju United controls their own destiny: a win at home against Gamba Osaka guarantees second place and advancement. Jeju also likely advances with a draw or a loss if Adelaide United fails to win.
For Adelaide to go forward, they must win at home against what is certain to be a line-up of kids for Jiangsu. Jeju must fail to win.
Osaka was all but knocked out by Baba Diawara’s stoppage time goal for Adelaide on Tuesday night. To advance, Osaka must beat Jeju by more than three goals and Adelaide must fail to win against Jiangsu.