CHINESE SUPER LEAGUE
Shandong Luneng 0
Jiangsu Suning 0
Jiangsu Suning had Graziano Pellè’s wanton carelessness in front of goal to thank for a somewhat undeserved point against highflying Shandong Luneng and with the revival under the tutelage of Fabio Capello continuing, a comfortable mid-table finish seems perfectly attainable for the Nanjing side.
In the run up to the Saturday evening fixture, Shandong’s Felix Magath had spoken candidly of his side’s continental ambitions and perhaps the northeasterns were harboring the hope that Jiangsu, having shirked the shadow of relegation by collecting 10 points in the last five games and surging up the table into 12th place, would be pliant and unmotivated opposition following the lull imposed by international football.
In fact, during a disjointed encounter that was sluggish in thought and sprinkled with low-level melodrama, the sole quality Capello’s team could not be accused of lacking was fight and a willingness to roll over to an unrelenting Shandong side.
Roger Martinez, selected as Jiangsu’s lone striker, plays with a scowl permanently etched around his mouth, Zhou Yun offered battle hardened solidity and Trent Sainsbury, making his first appearance of the season following an underwhelming loan stint at Inter Milan, deputized capably for the absent Li Ang. The Australian offers the type of coolheaded ball carrying that has often seemed lacking and adding Ramires’s ever timely interjections in midfield, Shandong were always going to be required to create their own luck.
Despite these positives, Jiangsu’s gutsy ability to hold out for a goalless draw should not be misconstrued as a defensive masterpiece with an Italian blueprint; when faced with an orange shirted onslaught in the final 20 minutes the away side withered somewhat and were it not for Pellè’s inaccuracy in front of goal and a defiant pair of posts, Ramires and co. would have retunrned home empty handed.
Shandong encountered the stubbornness of the woodwork twice inside the first half hour, most notably when Wu Xinghan headed the ball up and onto the opposition bar from close range in something akin to banging one’s head on the door frame when a simple stoop would have sufficed.
The only other first half incident of note was an overturned penalty decision as Jiangsu’s cacophony of protestation seemingly enough to convince the referee that Tardelli’s smashed free kick had, in fact, missed the arm of Sainsbury.
The strengths of Magath’s side, ones that have propelled the East China team to third in the CSL, were evident throughout; Dai Lin and Gil form a stingy pairing in central defense, the strength of Pellè offers Diego Tardelli the freedom to roam and probe the opposition’s weak spots, and the midfield offers a range of passing capable of undoing defensive frailties.
The former Bayern Munich and Fulham coach may not have his side playing with the flair of Shanghai SIPG or Guangzhou Evergrande, but Jiangsu’s solitary shot on target evidences the German’s perchance for organization that may well see the Jinan based team finish as 2017’s best of the rest side.
Shandong continued to be frustrated because despite their successes at exposing Jiangsu’s wingbacks with deep quarterback-esque passing, they couldn’t find the necessary penetration. As the match progressed the pitch deteriorated with sudden turns of foot and bravado tackles, moments which exhumed mounds of upturned grass that seemed earthly manifestations of Magath’s gesticulating anxiety.
The reverse fixture in May was Jiangsu’s first league win of the season and produced the type of late drama that seemed destined to recur here. Capello’s side had a host of opportunities to counter Shandong’s monopolizing of field position and yet seemed incapable of finding the final pass, the type a Wang Song or Ji Xiang was supposed to offer. Jiangsu’s Gao Di had a smartly taken goal disallowed with 15 minutes remaining on account of Martinez’s off-the-ball misdemeanors, and there was a slight sense of justice for the home supporters given how the balance of the chances had fallen across the encounter.
A point, however, will not disappoint anyone associated with Jiangsu, and with 2017 hopefully standing as a blip year for a club with lofty ambitions, Capello will be looking to surmount the likes of Shandong going forward. He made sure to praise his side’s fighting spirit after the match and mentioned the faith he holds in Sainsbury, but if the Nanjing team is to continue its upward momentum as the season approaches its final sprint, Capello will undoubtedly need more invention and cutting edge in front of goal.