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SIPG storm through first two Champion’s League matches against Melbourne and Kawasaki

This is your WEF home for all things SIPG. This week, Jeff Beresford-Howe looks at an invigorating ACL start for SIPG.

Two wins have SIPG sitting pretty in ACL Group F

Playing in a cold, driving rain at Shanghai Stadium Tuesday night, SIPG brushed aside a Melbourne Victory side that is flailing in the ACL and the A-League. The 4-1 SIPG win, following a much more impressive 1-0 win the week before at Kawasaki against the Japanese champions, puts SIPG firmly in command of Group F:

SIPG — 6
Ulsan Hyundai — 4
Melbourne Victory — 1
Kawasaki Frontale — 0

A win on March 7 at the Stadium against Ulsan practically guarantees Red Eagle advancement to the Round of 16 in the ACL. Good luck to Ulsan: In fifteen matches at Shanghai Stadium in the ACL, SIPG has now won thirteen and drawn two.

(And no, that last place team in the group is not a misprint. Kawasaki followed up the home loss to SIPG with a deserved, 2-1 loss to Ulsan in South Korea.)

Put the Victory on the barbie

For the first twelve minutes against Melbourne, SIPG looked a lot like they did last year on their bad nights — defensively discombobulated and without much of a plan. After the match, Wu Lei blamed the slow start on the rain, and sure, why not? It must have been that, and not that SIPG wasn’t taking Melbourne seriously.

Whatever it was, SIPG shrugged it off and from the fourteenth minute on, the chances came fast and furious. Elkeson (14’), then Akhmedov (17’), then Wu (17’), then Elkeson again (20’), all missed good opportunities to put Shanghai on the board. Finally, in the twenty-sixth minute, Wu, dribbling down the left side, humiliated a Melbourne defender, whose flailing hand deflected a Wu cross in the box. Hulk easily converted the subsequent penalty.

Wu, who has made a habit of misfiring in the ACL this year, finally got his first goal in the forty-first minute on a gorgeous display of football. Hulk found Wang Shenchao down low on the right side, who then made an absolutely perfect, driving cross that Wu converted on a quality, diving header.

Oscar, who looks reinvigorated this year, added two goals in the second half. The first wasn’t much (a hapless turnover let Oscar walk in alone on the keeper and he didn’t miss), but the second was world class stuff, some fancy dribbling followed by a curling shot from the upper left side of the box around both a defender and the keeper, into the upper right-hand corner of the net.

SIPG gave up one goal on a penalty after a call on what may or may not have been a handball in the box on a player who may or may not have been Yu Hai. (SIPG and keeper Yan Junling have conceded no goals during open play in three matches.)

Kosovar international Besart Berisha’s frustrated late-match attempts to brutalize a couple of SIPG players — including a clothesline tackle that’s illegal even in American football — somehow avoided red or even yellow cards and nearly sparked a couple of brawls.

Highlights:

A solid victory in Japan

The week before Melbourne came to the Stadium, SIPG defeated the defending Japanese champions 1-0 out in the far southern reaches of Tokyo.

It was a notable win in a lot of ways, but perhaps the most notable was the man-bites-dog sight of Hulk and Wu Lei committed to defending, playing just above and to the sides of the back four of Wang Shenchao, He Guan, Shi Ke and Yu Hai. It’s not inventing the wheel or anything, but new coach Vitor Pereira has obviously managed to get Hulk and Wu to buy in.

It amounted to a 4-1-4-1 formation, with Cai Huikang as a center defensive midfielder, Elkeson up top and Oscar and Akhmedov joining Hulk and Wu in prominent attacking roles from midfield. Kawasaki was helpless against this shockingly disciplined group, producing only two good chances all night.

One was an excellent header from Nakamura in the 33rd minute (saved with an even more excellent leap by Yan), the other a wide open shot after Wang Shenchao pinched in tight, leaving the left side vacant. Veteran Kawasaki midfielder Ienaga Akihito took a nifty pass and broke in alone on Yan, but inexplicably whacked his shot so high and wide that it’s probably still chasing Elon Musk’s Tesla in space.

(Wang also got caught badly out of position against Melbourne and nearly cost SIPG a goal in that one. Besides Wang’s lapses, though, the SIPG backline, Shi Ke in particular, was aces in both matches.)

The SIPG strategy ceded 60% of the possession to Kawasaki but SIPG felt firmly in control of the match from start to finish, especially after a magnificent goal in the twenty-third minute from Elkeson. Taking a long pass from Yu Hai — who has absolutely sparkled in his new role  — Elkeson chested the ball at the top of the box, then, as the ball bounced, volleyed a rocket past Korean international keeper Jung Sung-Ryong.

The goal came one minute after Elkeson was wrestled to the ground from behind in the box by Kawasaki defender Nara Tatsuki, directly in front of Jordanian referee Adham Makhadmeh, who inexplicably refused to award a penalty.

It’s worth pointing out that while it seems like Elkeson has been around forever — a pro since 2009, in China since 2013, at Shanghai since 2016, 90 goals in all as he pursues the Chinese dream — he’s only 28 years old and firing on all cylinders. How Pereira manages Elkeson’s playing time will go a long way towards determining SIPG’s success in 2018.

All in all, the disciplined defending and occasional, dangerous counterattacks from SIPG reminded one of nothing so much as Urawa’s performance against SIPG last year in the ACL semi-finals.

Highlights:

Odds and ends

— A note on the CSL U23 fiasco: Pereira has not tipped his hand on his strategy. No U23 players started for SIPG in either ACL match, and only one, Hu Jinghang, made Pereira’s matchday rosters. (Hu looked energized in some garbage-time minutes against Melbourne, though.)

— About 17,000 turned up at the Stadium for perhaps the most miserable night, weather-wise (4 degrees and a steady rain) in SIPG history, against a completely unheralded opponent. That represents Shanghai pretty well, you’d have to say.

— Hulk has worn the captain’s armband for all three of SIPG’s ACL matches. He does not speak Mandarin. It’ll be interesting to see how he handles the post in the CSL. (Or if, perhaps, the captain’s armband reverts to Wang Shenchao for those matches.)

— And speaking of Hulk, he gave an interview to “The Asian Game” pod, in Portuguese but translated into English. He is VERY aware of SIPG’s trophy void last year and comes across as determined not to let it happen again. The interview begins about 30 minutes in.

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

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