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AFC Champions League

Hulk powers Shanghai past Jiangsu and into ACL quarterfinals

Shanghai SIPG put an end to Jiangsu Suning’s continental adventure with a comfortable 3-2 win in the second leg of the AFC Champions League Round of 16.

AFC CHAMPIONS LEAGUE

Jiangsu 2
Hong Jeong-ho 75
Wu Xi 90+3

Shanghai SIPG 3
Elkeson 34
Yang Xiaotian (OG) 43
Hulk 90+4

Having lost 2-1 in the opening installment last week, the Nanjing-based team entered the game with mild optimism, albeit one tempered by the reality of poor current form, knowing a 1-0 score line would be enough to prevail.

And though there were nervy moments for André Villas-Boas’ side in the opening 30 minutes, during which Hong Jeong-ho smashed a close-range shot onto the post and Wu Xi threatened from distance, a pair of goals in the 10 minutes before the interval, both forged by Elkeson’s hard running and opportunism, poured water on Jiangsu’s febrile hope.

Choi Yong-soo, whose tenure in the Jiangsu capital now seems sure to be curtailed, sought to strike a delicate balance between attacking intent and defensive shape. For much of the game Jiangsu succeeded in frustrating Shanghai’s elaborate attempts at finding an opening with tough tackling and doubling up on the irrepressible Hulk.

While Shanghai had carved Jiangsu apart with ease the week before, resilience seemed to be the operative word here and the encounter had a certain feistiness for two sides not typically considered rivals. Cai Huikang was the casualty of a Ramires lunge and Roger Martinez recurrently showed his penchant for the game’s darker arts including an unsightly elbow that may well receive retrospective action.

There was, therefore, something almost comically facile about the manner in which Shanghai took full control of the tie in the space of nine first half minutes. First, Elkeson capitalized on miscommunication between Hong and goalkeeper Zhang Sipeng slipping between the two, stealing the ball and chipping it home. Next, in what can only be described as naïve eagerness to make amends and rebalance the tie, Jiangsu overcommitted itself on a corner and allowed Hulk to launch a breakneck counterattack downfield. The move ended with Yang Xiaotian deflecting Elkeson’s misdirected shot into his own net.

With the home side requiring four second half goals to progress to the next round, the remainder of the game was always more likely to be played in the spirit of pride than hope. Choi’s 55th minute introduction of target man Ge Wei and Xie Pengfei evidenced a directness to Jiangsu’s fight and whether due to Shanghai’s almost arrogant lethargy or the awkwardness of preventing countless long balls forward, the tactic worked with the home side eventually clawing back a pair of consolatory goals.

For much of the second half Villas-Boas could be seen berating his players from the edge of the technical area and, though his side ultimately progressed in a relatively comfortable manner, his concerns seem justified. While Shanghai’s Brazilian firepower is undoubtedly capable of dismantling defenses far stingier than Jiangsu’s, success in two-legged continental competitions, as the Portuguese manager will know from his stints at Porto and Zenit St. Petersburg, requires control and concentration; two qualities his side seemed bereft of in the second half.

Shi Ke and He Guan in central defense looked shaky throughout the two games and whichever side meets Shanghai in the quarterfinal will look to exploit the pairing further. Organization seemed weak on set pieces and Jiangsu got on the score sheet, first when Hong thumped in a corner with 15 minutes remaining and later through Wu Xi in the 93rd minute.

Though one wouldn’t want to stretch the extent of the home side’s threat too far, with Ge and Alex Teixeira having missed decent opportunities prior to the South Korea’s goal, it would have been interesting to observe how Shanghai dealt with a genuinely pressurized situation.

Shanghai, however, denied the home team any sense of score line pride in the final play of the game. Hulk turned in midfield with a sublime flick and drove towards the edge of the area before artfully curling a shot past Zhang.

It was fitting that Jiangsu’s chief tormentor across the two games had the last word and Villas-Boas will know as well as anyone else that the powerhouse Brazilian will have to remain at his best if Shanghai are to continue its progress in the competition.

Inhabits Beijing. Consumes football. Runs marathons.

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