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Historic ACL thriller as SIPG survive epic Evergrande comback – The Xujiahui Communiqué

Xujiahui Communiqué — The Shanghai SIPG Column

Your regular update on all things Shanghai SIPG. This week we sit and take a deep breath after one of the most intense football matches anybody has ever seen in China.

SIPG advances in the Asian Champion’s League on an incredible night in Guangzhou.

One centimeter. That was the difference Tuesday night between SIPG and Evergrande after two hours and forty-five minutes of what may have been the most dramatic football match ever played in China.

Ricardo Goulart of Evergrande, with a hat trick already recorded, the best player on the pitch all night, stepped up in front or a roaring, ecstatic crowd at Tianhe for the first kick of an unlikely Asian Champion’s League shootout.

He beat SIPG keeper Yan Junling. But Goulart’s shot deflected off the inside of the left post, somehow danced along the goal line without crossing it, and exited the other side. One centimeter to the right, it’s a different story.

After Goulart, one after another, SIPG players, exhausted and beaten all night, calmly stepped up and buried their shootout kicks: Hulk, then Oscar (exorcising the memory of his twin Urawa misses), Wu Lei and Ahkmedov.

The other four other Guangzhou shooters — Alan, Liao, Muriqui, Zheng Zhi — were just as cool.

So the last shot came down to part-time, 30-year-old SIPG and former Renhe midfielder Yu Hai, chosen by SIPG coach André Villas-Boas only because Elkeson never made it into the match.

Yu calmly dispatched his shot into the back of the net in the lower right hand corner and the victorious SIPG squad clung to each other in midfield in disbelief and relief, winners of the shootout 5-4 and vanquishers of Guangzhou Evergrande in the ACL quarterfinals.

It was the unlikeliest of finishes from the unlikeliest of players for a match that had everything — spectacular artistry, brutal blunders, tension and despair, red cards, questionable refereeing, groundskeeping chicanery, tactical controversy, last-minute goals (twice) and high stakes.

Guangzhou comes out focused and relentless, stays that way

The set-up for the match was not promising: SIPG won the first leg of this ACL quarter-final 4-0, which was enough of a hill to climb for Evergrande, but the away goals rule left Guangzhou staring at a brutal reality: even a single SIPG counterattack that led to a goal would make victory for Evergrande virtually impossible.

(Those counterattacks were made less likely by a little strategic overwatering: at the beginning of the match, the pitch resembled a swamp as much as a football field.)

Despite the daunting circumstances, Big Phil had Evergrande ready. They were as bought in as a team can be in this situation; they believed in the unlikeliest of comebacks right from the start.

On the other side, the Red Eagles played not to lose, yielding possession and retreating into a defensive shell, giving Guangzhou leave to move the ball virtually unchallenged into the last twenty-five years and set up shop.

This put a huge amount of pressure on the SIPG back line, missing Fu Huan and He Guan because of yellow card accumulation, and at first, they stood up to it. In the 9th minute, Wang Shenchao steered a ball away from the goalmouth, and Zhang Wei in the 19th and the bemasked Shi Ke in the 20th did the same.

Then, disaster: in the 22nd minute, Shi massively botched an easy clearance in the last third and it ended up on Alan’s foot. The Brazilian walked in alone on Yan and beat him easily.

Four minutes later, Yan failed to pluck a loose ball out of the air, leaving the ball on the ground for a tap-in and Evergrande’s second goal, but Iranian referee Alireza Faghani waved it off, ruling that Yan had been fouled. For those interested in VAR, replays showed clearly that Faghani was wrong.

Hulk gets carded, and then ignored

In the 30th minute, Faghani made another decision that would have massive consequences. Hulk believed he’d been fouled. Faghani disagreed, then slapped Hulk with a yellow for dissent.

From that moment forward, Faghani simply refused to call a foul on any play in which Hulk was involved: the next time a Guangzhou player fouled Hulk, according to Faghani, was in the 107th minute. Hulk became increasingly discouraged as this bizarre spectacle played out and spent longer and longer periods literally sitting on the pitch watching. The SIPG attack sat with him.

Meanwhile, the Evergrande onslaught continued. In the 35th minute, Alan scored again, tucking a lightning-quick header inside the right post. 2-0, Guangzhou.

The sequence that perhaps decided the match came during four minutes at the end of the first half.

Guangzhou swarmed the SIPG goal. In the 43rd minute, Goulart shot the ball wide as he moved in alone on Yan. In the 44th minute, Goulart didn’t get everything on a shot that beat Yan and lunging SIPG defender Lin Chuangyi cleared the ball as it began to cross the goal line. (In this case, VAR would have confirmed the no-goal call.) In the 47th minute, an open Goulart header from the middle of the box just missed.

Second half brings some relief for SIPG — but not enough

When SIPG came out for the second half, a shellshocked Villas-Boas, grateful perhaps that the score was only 2-0, tried to tighten up his defense. He pulled Zhang Wei and Lue Wenjun for Wei Zhen and Yu Hai. It paid off on some level; while Guangzhou continued to dominate, it wasn’t shock-and-awe anymore.

Still, a 58th minute pass to Gao Lin just missed the Chinese national team stalwart for what would have been an easy goal. Goulart hit the woodwork in the 66th minute, Yan made an outstanding save on a Goulart free kick in the 79th minute, and a stylish Goulart turn on the ball in the 80th minute from 10 yards out didn’t go in.

After that last Goulart miss, the tide seemed to have ebbed at Tianhe, and the crowd (less than 40,000, short of a sellout due to high ticket prices or the unlikeliness of a Guangzhou comeback) finally began to quiet down. SIPG was ten minutes from escaping Tianhe with an aggregate win.

But Guangzhou, now desperate, got back into shock-and-awe mode. An 83rd minute Zhang Wei handball outside the area gave Guangzhou a free kick, and a rushed restart caught SIPG napping. Goulart finally converted with a nice header on his seventh good scoring chance. 3-0 Guangzhou.

The inevitable-seeming tying goal came in the 91st minute when Li Xuepeng spotted Goulart utterly unmarked a few yards out on the right side of the area. A quick pass and a header from Goulart was simple work. 4-0, 4-4 on aggregate.

Moments later, Guangzhou came within an eyelash of winning it without needing overtime: the Brazilian international Muriqui, back at Guangzhou after a three-year hejira that took him to Al Sadd, FC Tokyo and Vasco de Gama, and in traffic, missed an open net and a chance to win the match by shooting the ball into the back of another Guangzhou attacker.

Overtime

As overtime began, SIPG was in a difficult position: Hulk was barely playing, Oscar, as he had been all night, was a non-factor, and Elkeson was doomed to stay on the bench after a 69th minute injury to Lin Chuangyi forced Villas-Boas to use his last substitute to bolster the defense. A match that looked at the beginning like it would be a coronation had become a struggle to survive.

But spending the whole night chasing the game finally caught up with Guangzhou and they came out flat. SIPG got their first good chance of the entire night in the 97th minute: an Ahkmedov pass found a streaking Wu Lei, who had a tough angle but forced Evergrande keeper Zeng Cheng to make his first real save of the night.

SIPG was not built for prosperity in this one, though. Moments after Wu’s shot, Wang Jiajie fouled Goulart, an easy yellow card call for Faghani. It was Wang’s second yellow of the night. SIPG was down to ten men.

Guangzhou did little with the advantage at first, and when the second half of overtime began, something astonishing happened: Faghani called three fouls in two minutes on players trying to tackle Hulk.

The last one gave SIPG a free kick from about 30 yards out in the 110th minute. Hulk stood over the ball, surveyed the field and then made what must be one of the very best free kicks anywhere in the world this year. It was a missile that cleared the leaping wall and then curved just inside the right post, giving Zeng — or any other keeper on the planet — no chance.

That made the score 5-4 on aggregate for SIPG and put the Red Eagles 10 minutes from escaping Tianhe with ACL advancement. Again. And again Guangzhou went into overdrive. In the 116th minute, a nice pass to Muriqui sent him in on Yan, but Wang Shenchao pulled him down just outside the box. Wang got a yellow, his second, leaving SIPG with nine men, but more controversially, Faghani also gave Guangzhou a penalty kick. Goulart converted to complete his hat trick as the Cantonese fans went insane.

The match immediately drew comparisons to the PSG-Barcelona UEFA Champion’s League match-up earlier this year, in which Barcelona also came back from four goals down, but as good as that one was, and at such a high level, it’s hard to imagine it was any more of a great ride than this one.

Highlights:

What’s next

SIPG will regroup and play Saturday in a CSL derby against Shenhua. SIPG remains eight points behind Guangzhou in the CSL after Guangzhou and SIPG both handled their business last weekend against, respectively, Changchun and Teda.

The next Champion’s League match-up for SIPG is the semi-final against either Kawasaki Frontale or Urawa Red Diamonds, on September 27 at Shanghai Stadium and October 18 in Japan.

SIPG and Evergrande play their sixth and final match of the year against each other on September 30 at Tianhe in the FA Cup. SIPG leads that one 2-1, a margin that looks awfully tenuous right about now.

American expat rooting for Shanghai SIPG, because they’re the Oakland A’s to Shenhua’s San Francisco Giants.

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