André Villas-Boas rolled them laughing bones twice this week. He was riding high on a hot Wednesday night but got shot down in the mud on Saturday.
Win some, lose some
SIPG went with their top team in the mid-week, FA Cup semi-final and were rewarded against an undermanned Guangzhou Evergrande with a 2-1 win, SIPG’s first victory against Guangzhou. Ever.
Over the weekend, though, Villas-Boas chose a line-up peppered with reserves against a rested Guizhou Zhicheng. He might have gotten away with it, but Fu Huan botched two gimmes towards the end of the fixture on the swampy piece of Guiyang crud.
A late goal punished SIPG for Fu’s profligacy, catapulted Guizhou into a 2-1 victory and the fringe of contention for an Asian Champion’s League position. Combined with Evergrande’s beatdown at Hongkou of the humiliatingly unmotivated Shanghai Shenua, SIPG is now eight points behind Evergrande in the CSL. For all practical purposes, the title race is over.
(Here’s something for the suspension happy CFA to do: suspend the whole damned Shenhua team for “actions detrimental to the reputation of Chinese football.”)
The curse against Evergrande is broken
Set the Wayback Machine for May 7, 2010. League One. Before a sparse crowd at Shanghai Stadium, SIPG faced an Evergrande squad which had finished ninth in the CSL the previous year but had been relegated anyway after a match-fixing scandal.
SIPG (then “Dongya”) lost 3-1. SIPG stayed in League One for two seasons after that before graduating to the CSL, while Guangzhou, after 24 stultifyingly mediocre years, won it’s first of seven consecutive championships. (The first in League One, the next six in the CSL.)
Evergrande and SIPG have faced each other eleven times after that first one and Evergrande has won or drawn all of them.
Until Wednesday night in the FA Cup.
The match, like the July CSL tie between the two teams, began slowly. SIPG’s offense was mostly speculative, mostly Hulk from long distance.
The only first half goal came in the 20th minute, when Guangzhou’s Liu Jian, lingering unmarked behind the pack on a corner kick, beat Yan Junling with a header to the right side.
That was the end of Guangzhou’s offense. Lacking Paulinho, gone to feed Messi and Suarez in Barcelona, and with Scolari choosing to rest several other starters, Evergrande rarely challenged the rest of the way.
It was a different story for SIPG, which came out in the second half loaded for bear.
Lu Wenjun guided a header off the woodwork moments after the restart. In the 52nd minute, Lu broke in alone on Guangzhou keeper Liu Dianzuo, who tackled him. No foul.
Hulk is catalyst in SIPG comeback
In the 54th minute, Hulk pounced on a loose ball. Liu rejected his shot, but Ahkmedov, quick as Fred Astaire, took the rebound while surrounded by three defenders and beat all of them and the keeper to boot to level the match.
Ahkmedov and Hulk both hit woodwork after the 70th minute and the hot, still air began to leak out of Shanghai Stadium as Red Eagles fans began to confront the possibility of another disappointment against Guangzhou.
Hulk, however, wasn’t having it. On a ninety-first minute free kick, thirty-five yards out on the right side, he swung the ball all the way across the field to the cusp of the goal, finding He Guan sneaking in towards the back post. He pushed his subsequent header into the dirt, but got enough of a push on it to get it past a diving Liu.
The win gives SIPG a one goal advantage headed into the return match at Guangzhou in mid-September. That match will come mid-week between CSL fixtures against Shenhua and Guo’an. With the CSL race virtually decided, Villas-Boas will have the luxury of fielding his best available squad again in the Cup.
A tough time in Guiyang against red hot Guizhou
The CFA is not known as a particularly fan-friendly outfit, but they outdid themselves on Saturday in Guiyang:
— In order to squeeze out more TV RMB, match time for Guizhou-SIPG was 5:30 pm to accommodate a national broadcast on CCTV5+. The fans in the west-facing stands, staring into the setting sun, may or may not have seen any of the first half and may or may not still have retinas.
— Groundskeeping standards? Apparently not. Guiyang hasn’t had terrible weather, but the pitch nevertheless was in appalling shape, in particular the western side. This was especially noticeable at the attacking end of the field for SIPG in the second half and became a problem for SIPG because they had to deal with a significantly smaller attacking zone. That side of the field also had potholes — not divots, potholes — in the box.
— Guizhou, winners of four straight in the CSL, had six days off after their last match (and have more than three weeks before their next one). SIPG, by way of contrast, had two days’ rest and was playing their seventh match in twenty-one days and play again Tuesday in the Asian Champion’s League. SIPG didn’t start Wu Lei, Ahkmedov, Elkeson and Shi Ke.
In particular, this resulted in Yu Hai, the 30-year-old former midfielder for Guizhou Renhe, getting a lot of playing time for SIPG. Yu was a brutal liability out there — slow, taking godawful angles on balls, and stopping to think things over every time the ball changed hands.
Still, SIPG got to the half with the match scoreless.
Seeing his opportunity, Villas-Boas yanked Yu and Wei Zhen, the 20-year-old who also looked lost and ineffective, for the start of the second half. He was immediately rewarded with the most disastrous possible start: Guizhou’s Mario Suarez dribbled to the edge of the center circle at the restart, waited for former Rangers, Everton and Hull City forward Nikika Jelavic to work up a head of steam, then split SIPG defenders Wang Shenchao and Wei Zhang with a perfect pass to the Croat. Jelavic walked in alone on Yan Junling and Guizhou had a goal 14 seconds into the second half.
Motivated by desperation, SIPG raised the level of their play. Wu Lei missed a header in the sixty-third minute he probably should have made, and shortly after that Lu Wenjun made up for an awkward first touch at the top of the box with a gorgeous volley to bring SIPG back to 1-1.
The critical moments, though, came after the 80th minute. Hulk hit the crossbar — he must lead the world in doing that — and the rebound landed right on the foot of Fu Huan. With nothing between him and the net, Fu missed. Six minutes later, SIPG had overwhelmed the Guizhou defense, and Fu simply had to make a pass to one of several options for an easy goal, but he botched that, too.
For Guizhou, Wang Fan’s shot from outside the box in the 90th minute caught Yan flat-footed, gave Guizhou a 2-1 victory and likely delivered the CSL championship to Evergrande.
Guangzhou Evergrande continue their residency in Shanghai with an Asian Champion’s League match-up against SIPG on Tuesday, then both teams get a well deserved break — except for the many players who will go play for their national teams, of course.
SIPG will come back from the break and immediately get hit with five matches in thirteen days: Teda at the Stadium, in Guangzhou for the ACL, Shenhua at the Stadium, back to Guangzhou in the FA Cup, then up to Gongti in the CSL.
In order for SIPG to get back in the CSL race, even if the Red Eagles are perfect, Guangzhou has to drop at least nine points. That’s highly unlikely, but the one glimmer of hope is that Evergrande finishes their season against Guizhou, Hebei and Quanjian, three teams who may be desperately clawing for ACL spots.