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Ashes, ashes all fall down: SIPG wins the battle but loses FA Cup war

Your WEF home for all things SIPG. This week, an upset that will take a long time to get over.

A win at the Stadium that meant nothing

Rarely has victory been so bitter.

A 3-2 win for SIPG in the second leg of the FA Cup final at Shanghai Stadium Sunday night gave crosstown rivals Shenhua the Cup on the away goals rule. The Red Eagles will spend a cold winter thinking about the one that got away.

There will be questions about André Villas-Boas’s line-up and tactics, about Hulk’s late-season walkabout and about the value produced — and not produced — by Oscar. There will be pointed questions about the season-long ineptitude of SIPG defenders.

But mostly there will be regret. No other team in China got as far as SIPG did on as many fronts, but the sports world is deeply Trumpist: there is one winner and everyone else is a “loser.” Sad.

For a while, it all looked so promising for SIPG at the Stadium Sunday night. Wu Lei (later named best player in the tournament) and Hulk both had early chances and then a gorgeous, long, 16th minute Oscar aerial pass found Lue Wenjun sneaking towards the back corner of the net. Lue, falling away from the goal, redirected Oscar’s pass into a net vacated by Shenhua keeper Li Shuai, who had taken himself out of the play by making an attempt to intercept the pass.

Shenhua controlled the middle of the match

That brought SIPG level with Shenhua 1-1 over the two legs, but prosperity did not suit SIPG on this night. Inexplicably, CSL bottom feeder Shenhua began to dominate and did so for about an hour.

Yan Junling, fresh off being named Keeper of the Year in the CSL, kept SIPG alive with a spectacular 31st minute save off a point-blank header, and SIPG got a huge break ten minutes later when a spiffy Cao Yunding goal (he was left in front all-by-his-lonesome by a ball-watching Fu Huan) was disallowed by referee Ted Unkel. The American correctly ruled that Obafemi Martins had heedlessly drifted onto the goal line and blocked Yan from making a play on the ball.

The reprieve only lasted four minutes. A long pass from Bai Jiajun found Cao alone in the box with surprise SIPG backline starter Wei Zhen. Wei turned and stumbled, taking himself out of the play like a drunk leaving Bar Rouge at 4 am. Cao, now one-on-one with Yan, didn’t miss.

Wei’s incompetence left SIPG needing two goals to win the Cup, and the response was underwhelming. At halftime, AVB pulled the U23 Wei Zhen (too late!) for Shi Ke and Zhang Yi from midfield for some attacking pace from Wei Shihao, also U23, but Shenhua continued to outplay the Red Eagles.

Moreno missed a golden opportunity for Shenhua in the 56th minute, but then Martins made something out of nothing in the 68th minute: a long pass left him one-on-two with Wang Shenchao and He Guan. Martins left both of them flailing and then beat Yan with a rocket from 20 yards. A world class goal.

SIPG comes most of the way back

And a goal that left SIPG now needing three to win. With the match essentially in the bag, Shenhua remembered that they are, in fact, Shenhua, and for ten minutes stumbled so thoroughly that they almost blew the Cup.

Shenhua goalscorer Cao began the SIPG comeback in the 72nd minute by tackling Fu Huan in the box. Cao was directly behind Fu and got all Fu, no ball. It was an easy call for Unkel and Hulk converted the subsequent penalty to make it 2-2.

Three minutes later, Moreno lost track of a Hulk corner and was looking the other way when the ball glanced off his hip and into the Shenhua net. The own goal made it 3-2 for SIPG and now SIPG was cooking with gas. Another goal meant a Cup victory.

But credit where credit is due: Shenhua pulled itself together and SIPG could come up with only two chances in the last 18 minutes. There was an excellent, 80th minute Wu Lei chance from 10 yards out that was found wanting when Wu mishit the ball. A moment later, Lue Wenjun missed a difficult header from a corner kick.

All that was left was the obligatory Shenhua-SIPG dustup, which came in the 91st minute. There was some milling and pushing and Wei Shihao shoved Shenhua’s Li Yunqiu, who went down very quickly, clutching his face. (Wei shoved him in the chest, but never mind.) Unkel misidentified the perp and gave Fu Huan a yellow, his second, which got him a red.
SIPG never threatened again and had just about the worst feeling you can get in pro sports: watching your rival celebrate a championship on your own turf.

Match highlights:

Next up

January 30 at Shanghai Stadium, in an ACL play-in match, most likely against Chiangrai United (Thai FA Cup winners after finishing fourth in the Thai league) or, less likely, Bali United (Indonesia), Shan United (Myanmar) or one of the four teams that could still win the Philippine league.

Who will be coaching that match for Shanghai? With all the ludicrous suspensions and pressure in the media, it may not be AVB. He said after the first leg that his decision for next year has been made. After this one, he said, “…the team is on the right path. Hopefully it can win something next year.” Notice the lack of “we” in that statement.

Ticketing SNAFU

A final, graceless note to the 2017 season.

Despite very high ticket demand — touts were asking and getting ¥1,500 outside the stadium on match night — the stadium wasn’t full. (Even forgetting the sections that the Shanghai police won’t allow to go on sale.) SIPG and the CFA made the decision to sell tickets only to SIPG season-ticket ID card holders, and then only in the last two days before the match. There was no way for the general public to buy tickets in person or on the web.

(Judging by the unusual number of men at the stadium wearing suits and with eye candy-ish girls, the SIPG corporate side didn’t have trouble finding a way in.)

Speculation was rife that this was an attempt to keep Shenhua fans from packing the stadium, but the only real winners were touts and counterfeiters, who rushed in to fill the void. The losers were everybody else: the fans who got ripped off (while the police did nothing), the Shanghai public, which missed a chance to watch a great match because the SIPG ownership group was afraid of losing face, and the reputation of Chinese football.

 

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

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