Guangzhou R&F’s attacking style took them to fifth in the CLS in 2017. Can Dragan Stojković lead the Cantonese to ACL qualification at the end of the 2018 season?
After all of the comments about the sloppy mid-season refurbishments to Yuexiushan in 2017, it would be easy to forget that R&F’s home ground saw some of the most exciting football in the CSL. Free flowing in attack and, as with many other CSL teams, suspect at the back, there was action at both ends of the pitch whenever R&F played. A great late season run meant that R&F were still in with a chance of ACL qualification on the final day in 2017. It wasn’t to be though.
In common with most CSL clubs, R&F had a quiet transfer window. The major deal was swapping captain Jiang Zhipeng to Hebei for Ding Haifeng plus an undisclosed amount of cash. The swap was an open secret for a long time but only confirmed by the two clubs last week, possibly waiting to see if the CFA would pull yet another late rule change. Jiang’s attacking wing back role, matched by Tang Miao on the right, was crucial to R&F’s style of play so there is a lot of pressure on Ding to continue where Jiang left off.
R&F also brought in midfielder Zhang Jiaqi from Evergrande on loan, and signed Cantonese U23 player Cai Haojian from Zhaoqing. Depending on how Stojković deals with the U23/foreign player trade-off, Cai may get some minutes. However, none of U23 defender signings Zheng Zhiming, Chen Yajun or Wang Xin were presented at R&F’s pre-season event so have presumably been put straight into the reserves.
Following Ding, Zhang and Cai, the fourth R&F signing introduced at the pre-season event was Marko Perović. The well-travelled Serbian has been ‘promoted’ from R&F’s Hong Kong team in a move which appears designed to get another foreigner in whilst avoiding the CFA’s transfer tax.
The old cliché goes that getting a player back from a long injury is like a new signing. Junior Urso fits into this category after missing most of the last half of 2017. Also returning, this time from loan at Guizhou, are winger Chang Feiya and midfielder Min Junlin who had the third highest U23 minutes in the CSL last year.
Apart from Jiang, R&F also said goodbye to Apostolos Giannou after two years and unsuccessful mid-season arrival Sölvi Ottesen. U23 Xiang Baixu and Ye Chugui (loan) both moved to Shenzhen, whilst Zeng Chao returns to hometown Meizhou. None were first choice in 2017, and whilst Ye and Zeng did get decent game time, this should be offset by Chang and Min’s return from Guizhou.
Guangzhou R&F had five pre-season friendlies in Australia allowing them to try out different U23/foreigner splits. U23 Huang Zhengyu will be one of Stojković ‘s three centre backs, allowing Israeli goal machine Eran Zahavi to play. Other nailed on selections include Cheng Yuelei in goal, with Tang Miao and Ding Haifeng as wingbacks. Xiao Zhi should continue to lead the line, and if speculation that Lu Lin – voted Guangdong’s Mr Football again – is to become captain is correct, the hometown hero will be in midfield.
To get the creative Renatinho into the starting XI, another U23 will be needed, whilst a third U23 will be required to get Urso onto the pitch. That would leave out the likes of Chen Zhizhao, Yi Teng, Li Tixaing, Jiang Jihong, Chang Feiya and Zhang Jiaqi. A difficultchoice for Stojković and one that he will have to make soon.
Up for the cup?
R&F are in the tougher half of the CFA Cup draw. Assuming the Cantonese get past China League One opposition in their first match, they would probably have to face Henan away (never a happy hunting ground for R&F), before Tianjin Quanjian or Jiangsu in the quarters and SIPG or Beijing Guoan in the semis. With others potentially distracted by ACL or CSL title challenges, a good cup run isn’t out of the question though.
Whilst vice-president Huang Shenghua indicated that he’d be happy if R&F challenged for the ACL spots this year and did so playing attacking football, Stojković was more ambitious. The manager is aiming for a top three finish. Despite coming so close last season, R&F haven’t massively strengthened their squad for 2018 whilst others, notably Beijing Guoan, have. It will be a real achievement if the Cantonese match their 2014 exploits.
To do so they’ll have to quickly get to grips with the new rule on balancing U23s and foreign players. Local boy Huang Zhengyu hogged the majority of U23 minutes for R&F last season, so R&F’s other U23 options are untested. With the rule creating difficulties for all clubs, the quickest to find the best (least worst?) balance will have a big advantage. Stojković will wish that his experimenting didn’t have to be done away to last year’s top two sides though.
The opening games
First up for R&F is a Canton derby under the Friday night lights at Tianhe. Before August last year this wouldn’t have held any fear for R&F but after Evergrande mauled them in the CFA Cup, things may be different this time round.
R&F’s second away game isn’t any easier. Shanghai SIPG are flying in their ACL group and may well have qualified for the knock-outs by the time R&F arrive in Shanghai. However, the Cantonese did get a memorable away win in late 2017, shortly before SIPG suffered their own CFA Cup implosion to a city rival.
Sandwiched between the two is what looked like an easy game when the fixtures finally came out; newly promoted Dalian Yifang at home. That was before the Wanda Group pulled out of Athletic Madrid and got involved with Dalian football again. Details are still sketchy, and a 34 year old who couldn’t even get into West Ham’s defence is not exactly a statement signing, but it does make what looked like a home banker a bit more interesting. R&F fans will be crossing Guangzhou for the derby before getting to watch a game at Yuexiushan though.