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Thais out of Asian Champions League: SIPG dispatches Chiangrai 1-0 and advances to group stage

This is your WEF home for all things Shanghai SIPG. In this episode, Jeff Beresford-Howe looks at a victory at Shanghai Stadium that propels SIPG in the ACL and sets up some serious football ahead.

It’s a Shanghai winter tradition

Chiangrai United was better than Muang Thang United in 2016 and Sukhothai in 2017, but in the end, they were the third straight Thai side to make the mid-winter trek to Shanghai Stadium for an Asian Champion’s League playoff match and the third straight to lose it. This one went 1-0 for SIPG and means advancement to Group F in the ACL.

It was not a thrilling evening. Freezing temperatures and a high pollution count, along with the seemingly inevitable outcome, held the crowd to a remarkably quiet 17,300 fans. (A bigger crowd might have tested the reduced access to the Stadium apparently left over from last November’s FA Cup final.)

New coach Vitor Pereira put his stamp on the SIPG line-up right from the start: five-year SIPG veteran and three-year starting defender Fu Huan was not to be found on the pitch or on the bench; in his place, Pereira rolled the dice with veteran journeyman midfielder Yu Hai, who may have begun a new career in the back.

Yu and the usual defending suspects — Wang Shenchao, Shi Ke and He Guan — had a rocky first half. As we saw so often last year, the SIPG defense was sliced open repeatedly. Slightly better finishing would have netted the Thais a couple of goals.

SIPG is advancing because things turned around in the second half in a big way. After the break, Chiangrai never got anywhere near the SIPG goal and the Red Eagles had a nest full of chances.

The only goal of the match came from Yu just after the restart. He was the third man taking a whack at a loose ball in front of the net after two saves from Chiangrai keeper Chatchai Budprom, who had maybe the best night a keeper has ever had in Shanghai Stadium.

The lack of more goals is down to some bad shots (Hulk and Oscar), but mostly Budprom. If he’d had an ordinary rather than great night, SIPG would have had a handful of goals.

Highlights:

What did we learn about Pereira?

Tactically, he stuck with the 4-3-3 that André Villas-Boas liked. Except for Yu, he started a group that AVB would have no trouble recognizing: Hulk, Wu Lei and Lue Wenjun up top, Oscar, Cai Huikang and Ahmedov in the middle, Yu, Wang, Shi and He in the back, with 2017 Keeper-of-the-Year Yan Junling in goal.

Wang Shenchao — who, by the way, yielded his captain’s armband to Hulk — continued to commit deep down the right side, as he did all last year, and also like last year, got caught out a couple of times doing it. On the Brazilian front, the offense ran through Hulk, Oscar showed flashes of inspiration and Elkeson didn’t find his way into the starting line-up. (ACL rules allow four foreigners to play; Pereira left one of those slots on the bench.) Oscar took the corners in the first half, but Pereira gave those duties back to Hulk in the second half.

Oddly, Pereira pulled Ahmedov halfway through for Zhang Yi. No word on any possible Ahmedov injury.

AVB’s second-choice keeper, U23 Chen Wei, was not chosen; in his place was career back-up Sun Le.

And speaking of U23, there were no signs of what Pereira might do about the bizarre new U23 rules when the CSL season starts. Only two U23 players made the match day roster, forwards Chen Binbin and Hu Jinghang (back from his loan year at Henan). Hu actually appeared in the match, as a post-90th minute time-wasting substitution for Wu Lei.

On to Group F

SIPG joins a very manageable Champion’s League Group F: Kawasaki Frontale (Japan), Melbourne Victory (Australia) and Ulsan Hyundai (South Korea).

Kawasaki Frontale is a beast. They were the best team in Japan last year. Yu Kobayashi, who also plays for the Japanese national team, got 23 goals for Frontale, and, quite unusually, the team uses their entire foreigner allocation on the backline. They’ll provide an early test for SIPG when the group stage opens Feb. 13 in Kawasaki. SIPG does catch a bit of a break because that match will be three days after Kawasaki plays in the Japanese Super Cup against Cerezo Osaka.

The other two teams in the group can be had.

Ulsan Hyundai is the Shenhua of Korea: a mediocre team that finds itself in the ACL by way of a lucky FA Cup run. In the last four rounds of the Cup, Ulsan faced three second division teams and the 10th place team in the K League. Otherwise, though, they had an undistinguished season: a K-League goal differential of only +3, and they were 9th in the league in goals scored. Their leading striker, the Croat international Mislan Orsic, had a jaw undropping 10 goals.

Melbourne Victory was very good in the 2016-17 Aussie season, which got them into this year’s Champion’s League, but Australia is halfway through a whole new season and Victory has become something of a misnomer. They’re a distant fourth with a goal differential of +1. SIPG catches what will either be a huge break or a nightmare: they don’t have to make the crushing, mid-week trip to southern Australia until the last day of the group stage. The same thing happened last year, against Western Sydney, and SIPG was able to send a second-tier squad for what was essentially a dead rubber. SIPG’s first home match of the group stage will be on Feb. 20 against this team.

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

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