In case an outsider is in search of a yardstick to measure the burgeoning growth of football in China, they need look no further than the meeting of Fabio Capello and Luiz Felipe Scolari under Nanjing’s floodlights on Sunday night.
CHINESE SUPER LEAGUE
Jiangsu Suning 2
Yang Boyu 33
Wang Song 87
Guangzhou Evergrande 2
Ricardo Goulart 11
A mere five years ago, the notion that these all-conquering galacticos of world football should face off as representatives of two Chinese Super League teams would have certainly seemed a far-off, fanciful thing. And yet there they stood, baring sweat and full-bore gesticulation on the sodden touchline; Scolari’s baggy polo shirt failing to conceal the “Big” of his nickname, Capello’s designer glasses framing a cacophony of facial expressions that evidenced a genuine commitment to the Suning project.
Lest one forget, there was a football game to boot and while the jousting of Jiangsu Suning and Guangzhou Evergrande may lack the luster and technical adroit of previous games involving these illustrious managers, bad football blood has long existed between China’s former capital and its southern megalithic counterpart. This mid-September encounter didn’t fail to provide moments of quality and an array of intriguing subplots.
It is hard to charge a club that has stood indomitable atop Chinese football for nearly a decade with overconfidence, however, it was undoubtedly arrogance that denied Guangzhou from collecting all three points on its trip to Nanjing Olympic Stadium.
Having grappled to a 2-1 lead with a little over 10 minutes to play, other teams would have flicked the procrastination switch, slowed the tempo of the game to walking pace, and tried to beckon the doctors onto the field with infuriating frequency. But, then again, other teams tend to start matches with a full quota of foreigner players, other teams can’t count China’s best midfielder of a generation among its ranks, and other teams don’t leave a star forward who scored a hat trick in midweek to idle on the bench for 70 minutes. Another team Guangzhou is not.
Scolari’s side took the lead slickly after 10 minutes when Ricardo Goulart collected Xu Xin’s through ball and found time and space to side foot home. At this point the bumper home crowd, boosted by the uptick in Jiangsu’s recent fortunes under Capello and the allure of a visit from Guangzhou, had every right to worry that it was about to witness a flogging to suitably avenge the Asian Champions League knockout to Shanghai SIPG.
Yet if Zheng Zhi and company were expecting a corralling romp in the aftermath of midweek disappointment, Jiangsu proved most unwilling opponents. The combination of Ramires and Liu Jianyi, introduced in lieu of U23 player Gao Tianyi after 20 minutes, managed to repel the surging yellow shirts and offer a credible threat with direct balls to Roger Martinez whose pace and craft on the break forced the away side to restrain itself from overcommitting in attack.
Although there remains much to be desired about Jiangsu’s style of play in the post Choi Yong-soo era, Capello has drilled his side well on set pieces – in much the same way Marcello Lippi has with the national team. Training ground monotony reaped dividends with the game approaching half time. Yang Boyu soared above his marker and thumped home a Wang Song corner to give Jiangsu something to hold onto.
Predictably, the league leaders continued to monopolize possession in the second half, but, with the exception of a couple of half chances that fell the way of Gao Lin, the game was largely reduced to a scrap fest as both teams tried to control the midfield.
Having repeatedly berated Gu Chao’s distribution in the first half, Capello could be seen urging collective calm as the probability of a point grew ever-nearer. In Martinez and winter signing Benjamin Moukandjo, Jiangsu may have a pair of sharp forwards, but truthfully they never seemed likely to truly affront Feng Xiaoting or Zhang Linpeng. Ultimately, the game seemed to be waiting for Alan to arrive and decide the encounter one way or another.
The Brazilian’s impact upon being introduced was tastelessly obvious and painfully immediate. With 20 minutes remaining, Guangzhou switched the ball from left to right and Jiangsu’s defense, as if dizzy from the sheer concept of cross field passing, offered Alan a postcode of space to run into and fire firmly through Gu’s legs.
Guangzhou celebrated with the swagger of a team that finds goal scoring a prosaic and inevitable sort of thing, but so long as Scolari’s side was more intent on extending its lead rather than rolling around on the floor, there was hope for the Nanjing side.
Jiangsu’s answer came five minutes from time and by the boot of Wang, a player whose excellent crossing and solid performances promise to pose a headache for Capello when captain Wu Xi returns from injury. The attacking midfielder interchanged smartly with Martinez whose ingenious reverse pass left a host of defenders stock still and allowed Wang to angle a shot into Liu Dianzuo’s far corner.
The cameras arrived en masse to photograph the parting niceties of Capello and Scolari and although the result is unlikely to affect the league at large, it felt like a small victory for Jiangsu, the likes of which have been scare for the Nanjing faithful in 2017.