Although satisfaction in defeat seems a stark sporting contradiction, Jiangsu Suning’s players evidenced a sense of relief as the final whistle put a stopper on a 2-1 defeat to Shanghai SIPG in the first-leg AFC Round of 16.
The short trip down the Yangtze saw Jiangsu sustain a back foot battering for nearly 90 minutes, but having escaped capitulation, which at points in the tie seemed a looming inevitability, Choi Yong-Soo’s side have the opportunity to make Shanghai pay for their frivolousness in front of goal when the teams face up again in Nanjing on May 31st.
AFC CHAMPIONS LEAGUE
Shanghai SIPG 2
Hulk (pen) 31
Odil Ahmedov 41+2
Jiangsu Suning 1
Roger Martinez 8
In opposition to the calamitous turbulence of Jiangsu’s Chinese Super League (CSL) campaign, Asia’s premier continental competition has frequently offered succor and a sense of progress for Choi’s side. Not this time. Jiangsu was unable to deal with Oscar’s range of passing, the elusive movement of Odil Ahmedov, and a particularly boisterous Hulk performance.
The away side’s lack of confidence seems to have permeated the squad and players were as perplexed as they were delighted when Roger Martinez gave Jiangsu the lead after nine minutes. Having squandered a glorious opportunity only moments earlier, the Colombian registered his first goal of the season after snatching the ball from Cai Huikang’s miscontrol and dispatching a fierce low shot.
Zhang Sipeng ran the full length of the field to celebrate with his teammates.
Choi’s game plan was to cut off Shanghai’s passing lanes and force Hulk and Wu Lei deep and wide to minimize their impact and for the opening 30 minutes the trick seemed to be working with Liu Jianyi policing the midfield with timely authority and Hong Jeong-ho’s return to the side following injury a welcome reintroduction.
Shanghai continued to probe and leveled the score with a dubious Hulk penalty in the 31st minute. Replays showed Li Ang had poked the ball away from the forward’s control, but the Brazilian’s tumbling antics were enough to convince the referee.
Shanghai Stadium can at times seem a cavernous space but the goal energized the home support and Jiangsu began a protracted exercise in hanging on. Much to Andre Villas Boas’ delight the away side’s shaky defense was breached with the final kick of the first half.
Again Hulk was the bludgeon that felled Jiangsu’s resistance. The former Porto player stood stock-still inside the area, toying with the cluster of yellow shirts that had arrived to muster opposition, he then proceeded to smash his way to the byline, the physical embodiment of crowbarring a door ajar, and clipped a cross onto the head of Ahmedov.
The goal seemed ominous for Jiangsu and indeed the blitz faced by Ramires and co. at the beginning of the second half threatened to make the return leg redundant. Though elusive is not a word one typically associates with a footballer named after a Marvel superhero, Hulk was certainly hard to pin down and shifted from left to right at will. Oscar’s influence also grew as the game progressed with the former Chelsea player repeatedly showing a hunger for tackling.
The pair of Brazilians went close with long range efforts and Jiangsu made a series of defensive errors that ensured the pressure rarely lapsed from the edge of their area. The ordeal was clearly exhausting and having played nearly two games a week since the beginning of the year, Choi was forced into bringing on Zhang Xiaobin and Wu Xi, who nearly created what would have been a thoroughly underserved second goal when he crossed sublimely only for Martinez to put a header over the bar.
Despite losing the game, Choi will not be fatalistic about the tie and may choose to rest some of his key players for the weekend trip down south to Guizhou.
The return game promises to be an enthralling occasion given Shanghai’s defensive shortcomings paired with the general sense at Jiangsu that elimination here would spell the end of club’s trophy hunting in 2017.