Guangzhou R&F fell just short of ACL qualification on the final day of the 2017 CSL season. Given the stiff competition, ACL qualification always felt more like a dream than a realistic possibility but coming so close is testament to the hard work of the Cantonese side and their manager Dragan Stojković.
Guangzhou R&F could not be accused of lacking money but their 2017 recruitment strategy might have suggested this. With other clubs breaking transfer records to sign players from Europe’s top leagues, R&F brought in a clutch of uninspired looking domestic signings from League One and relegated Shijiazhuang. The only bright side to this was that R&F had all their players in place for pre-season. On the downside, this left R&F no room for manoeuvre once the foreign player rules were changed late in the day. The even later departures of experienced trio Wang Xiaolong, Wang Song and Zhang Yaokun also hinted at a difficult season.
Season in brief
The Cantonese led the CSL from the word go, winning five times in the first six games. Then came an eleven game fallow spell where R&F only managed one win and repeatedly conceded late result changing goals to drop more points. Stojković’s team regained their form in August – winning four in a row by scoring four goals or more – and began to haul their way back into ACL contention. A September wobble looked to have ended their ACL hopes but a stunning October brought everything down to the final game of the season. The Cantonese did their bit by beating Chongqing 2-0 away but lost out to Hebei on head-to-head record (they were also behind on goal difference). Finishing fifth in the CSL is R&F’s second best ever season and is a good achievement given some of the pessimistic pre-season predictions.
R&F fans felt the sickening feeling of being punched in the gut when seeing their side concede after the 85 minute mark this season all too often. Wins turned to draws against Evergrande, Beijing and Henan in the final five minutes, whilst draws turned into losses against Tianjin Quanjian and Chongqing.
However, nothing was more painful than the destruction derby at Tianhe in August. After back-to-back 4-2 wins at Yuexiushan in the league and first leg of the CFA Cup quarter final, R&F were high on confidence going into the game. With Evergrande experiencing a mid-summer wobble of their own, it looked like R&F could deal a knock-out blow to Scolari. However, it was the blue and whites who were left on the canvas begging for mercy as Evergrande won 7-2.
The turning point
Yuexiushan had not one but two refurbishments this year. The first, planned refurbishment saw R&F start the season at the Provincial Peoples Stadium. Returning to an all blue Yuexiushan seemed to spark a slump in form. In reality however this had more to do with injuries, suspensions and conceding late goals. With Stojković perhaps fearing for his job, the club hierarchy decided there was only one option: to follow fengshui principles and repaint Yuexiushan gold and green. The white and blue away kit was also made the new home kit. Whether it was the surprisingly sloppy paint job or just a placebo effect, the new surroundings certainly helped. R&F went unbeaten in their final eight CSL home games, winning seven.
Incidentally, Yuexiushan’s impromptu mid-season paint job wasn’t the only bizarre coming together of ancient Chinese beliefs and modern CSL football this year.
The dreamlike start to the season which had R&F sitting at the top of the table looking down at everyone else was the best part of the year. Being able to reply, even if not quite believe, “Leicester did it” whenever anybody asked if R&F could stay at the top made for a great couple of months.
The spectacular August form deserves a mention here too, as does the 3-2 win against Henan in October. As a football fan, few feelings match that of scoring an extra time winner, especially when it keeps your side in the hunt for continental football. For the latter reason, winning 2-1 against SIPG at Shanghai Stadium the following weekend was another high.
Domestic player report
Guangzhou R&F play an open, attacking style of football which is great to watch going forwards but sometimes best seen from behind your hands when on the defensive. Two players who embody this approach are captain Jiang Zhipeng and Tang Miao. Their attacking wingback play was crucial to making Stojković’s three at the back work in an attacking sense. Two goals for Tang and plenty of assists for both suggest that it did work, but 46 goals conceded shows that it came at a cost.
That cost would’ve been higher had it not been for Cheng Yuelei in goal. Now with 200 CSL appearances behind him, Cheng again showed why he has been first choice at Yuexiushan for the majority of his time in Guangzhou. Somebody with the prospect of racking up 200 top-flight appearances of his own is Huang Zhengyu. The U23 centre back played more minutes than any other youngster in the CSL and was named U23 player of the year. He’ll be eligible for a U23 spot next season too so expect to see plenty more of the Guangzhou native.
Two more established Cantonese heroes enjoyed good seasons in midfield; Chen Zhizhao and Lu Lin. Crowd favourite Lu joined keeper Cheng in recording 200 CSL appearances by playing in almost every game. Chen’s year was more disjointed however, following a mid-season suspension for his role in the Oscar fracas. Ahead of them and the foreign trio, Xiao Zhi is one of a rare breed: a Chinese striker leading the line for a CSL side. The man from Henan did not score many goals but his efforts earned him a call-up to the national side.
Among the regular starters, this leaves three of the domestic signings who initially looked so uninspired. As it turned out Jiang Jihong, Yi Teng and Li Tixiang all made valuable defensive (midfield) contributions alongside Huang. The R&F backline is some way from the finished article though. Other free transfers Xiang Baixu and Zhang Gong had limited pitch time but were often among the substitutes.
Finally, Meizhou attackers Zeng Chao and Ye Chugui continued to make a reasonable number of appearances in 2017 but neither could convert this to goals.
Foreign player report
Every CSL side had a foreigner who lost out because of the late rule change. For Guangzhou R&F it was undoubtedly Jang Hyun-soo. The South Korean international was the odd man out behind Stojković’s preferred foreign trio and transferred back to Tokyo mid-season. A sad end for the defender/defensive midfielder who’d enjoyed three good years in Guangzhou. It’s hard to think that his replacement Sölvi Ottesen will be around for anything like the same amount of time.
On the other hand, the Cantonese will do everything in their power to hang onto scoring sensation Eran Zahavi. Just about the only blot on his season happened in the 88th minute of the final game when he failed to convert a counterattack chance against Chongqing. This left the CSL’s MVP with 27 goals, one shy of the single season scoring record. A blip in his scoring rate after a late season international break seemed to halt his momentum but, just like the rest of the team, Zhavai found a way to continue to score. Many of the Israeli’s chances were supplied by Renatinho. The diminutive Brazilian has got all the skills and a mean free kick too. He ended the season with 12 goals to his name. His compatriot Junior Urso is less creative but provided an important physical presence in front of the back three. Urso missed most of the final third of the season with an injury though.
This leaves Apostolos Giannou to last, much as it must have felt for him for the majority of the season. The out of favour striker could not be faulted for his effort in the few appearances he did make though. With a year left on his contract, it will be interesting to see if his two goals in seven CSL games is enough to keep him at Yuexiushan for another season.
This was a good year for Guangzhou R&F. Largely overlooked at the start of the season because of the big spending of others, Stojković built a team capable of playing some beautiful passing football and who almost qualified for the ACL doing so. Whilst the main strengths are clear, so is the main area for improvement; you can’t expect to qualify for the ACL if you concede 46 goals (more than anyone else in the top 10). Encouragingly, Stojković has signed a contract extension and will have preseason to work on the defence. He can do so safe in the knowledge that whilst there are problems to fix, there are also plenty of positives to build on for the 2018 season.