If the rumors of Choi Yong-soo’s imminent departure that arose as the Olympic Nanjing Stadium emptied itself of limp and deflated supporters prove to be true, it is difficult to ascertain exactly what the South Korean’s successor must remedy.
Misfortune counts for little in the modern game and patience is given short shrift, but truthfully Jiangsu’s 2-1 defeat to a focused Guangzhou R&F side that tops the Chinese Super League after six games was settled by the clinical brilliance of Eran Zahavi’s right foot as opposed to any egregious shortcomings of the home side.
Chinese Super League
Jiangsu Suning 1
Alex Teixeira 35
Guangzhou R&F 2
Eran Zahavi 62, 77
Indeed, optimistic Nanjing fans might point to the full throttle 15 minute period after the interval during which Choi’s team offered its most compelling football all season and threatened to expose Guangzhou’s early season form as something brittle and capable to snapping under pressure. This rollicking quarter of an hour saw the new wingback pairing of Tao Yuan and Cao Haiqing stretch play in a manner the team has been craving, Ramires pressed and intercepted the opposition’s attempts to play out from deep relentlessly, and Ji Xiang suddenly seemed to understand the awkward steps of the inside forward jig Choi has been having him dance.
Having taken a first half lead when Alex Teixeira latched onto Cao’s opportunistic long ball forward exposing characteristic speed and composure to finish low past Cheng Yuelei, a second goal would quite likely have taken game from the away side – particularly given the South Chinese side only won four games on the road in the whole of 2016.
This period saw chances fall the way of Ji and Ramires, the latter particularly culpable given the hastiness with which he smashed an inviting Teixeira square ball over from eight yards out. When Jiangsu’s goal scorer grazed the cross bar with an audacious snapshot bicycle kick minutes later, the thrilling excitement of the home side’s dominance was tinged with a sense of Guangzhou’s inevitable retaliation.
Jiangsu had been boosted in the run up to the Friday night game by the news that Renatinho, a key Guangzhou midfield, was absent on personal leave and the sense that perhaps a stern testing opposition might succeed in squeezing the best out of the team. Chinese media made much of the two side’s contracting form with attention paid to a Guangzhou back six that has remained relatively unchanged since the season opener against Tianjin Quanjian.
Both teams might be playing 3-5-2 but Dragan Stojkovic has proved the superior executor and has managed to deploy the experience of Xiao Zhi in attack effectively. That said, for much of the encounter Huang Zhengyu and Jiang Jihong failed to contain Teixera- though this might more an expression of the Brazilian’s supremacy in this league.
The other played who refused to be contained on this breezy April evening was Zahavi. Having begun season slowly, the Israeli captain now has four goals in two games and strutted, flicked, and toyed his way around the pitch for 90 minutes, his wild chest pumping celebrations mere extensions of a certain type of irrepressible confidence. The similarity of the goals must have been frustrating to Jiangsu’s goalkeeper Zhang Sipeng who could do nothing as Liu Jiangyi offered Zahavi copious time and space to guide a pair of shots from outside the area with calamitous effect.
If the first goal in the 62nd minute was a slap to the face, one that could potentially revitalize Choi’s flagging side, the second with under 15 minutes left to play was a punch to the nether region and it punctured that fickle thing called confidence with which the home side had been playing. Choi threw on Jiangsu’s beanpole-come-footballer Ge Wei for the final 10 minutes, but the two-meter tall forward was as much a distraction to his teammates as the opposition.
Stojkovic, in what seemed like polished and unremarkable media-speak, was glowing and generous in his assessment of Jiangsu in his pre match comments and warned of Nanjing’s strength and danger. While Jiangsu showed flashes of the side that seized second spot in the CSL last season, the positional chopping and changing employed by Choi has certainly undermined any notion of progression.
The fact that Choi has only started the same pairing of wingbacks, a pivotal position in Choi’s formation, three times in 10 games helps to explain the narrowness that has plagued the team in the league. Yet even with Tao and Cao performing capably on the flanks, Liu offered an alternate weakness and fails to be the prescient all-running-holding-midfielder that Choi clearly wills him to. Hong Jeong-ho’s injury on the cusp of halftime certainly didn’t help defensive solidity and though Zhou Yun’s commitment to the cause cannot be doubted, as the player made his 200th appearance on Friday, his lapses in concentration should have been ironed out by this stage in his career.
Perhaps the most disheartening aspect of the defeat for Jiangsu was the meek manner in which the home side finished the match, the fizzling panache sporadically demonstrated for 60 minutes replaced by uncertain sideways passing and slack, frustrated tackling. The unpleasant truth for Jiangsu is that with Tianjin QuanJian and Shangdong Lueneng coming up in the next three league games, it will meet equally unforgiving opponents.