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Silverware in sight: The 2018 Shanghai SIPG season preview

This is your WEF home for all things Shanghai SIPG. Today, Jeff Beresford-Howe gives an overview of the upcoming campaigns for SIPG in the Chinese Super League, Asian Champion’s League and FA Cup.

Flying high into 2018

If you liked the 2017 SIPG team that finished second in the CSL, second in the FA Cup and reached the semi-finals of the Asian Champion’s League, you’ll like the 2018 edition, too. You’d have to look far and wide to find a side with a more stable roster between last season and this.

There’s no reason to think that this team won’t play to the same level – or better -in 2018. Almost all of the SIPG starters are still in their prime and the new coach, Vitor Pereira, has a reputation for shoring up the one area that SIPG struggled in last year -the back line.

One, two or three pieces of silver are all possibilities.

If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it

SIPG has already played three ACL matches this year, all wins. In those matches, Pereira made only one change from last year’s starting line-up: veteran midfielder Yu Hai replaced Fu Huan on the backline. Yu looks confident and SIPG has yielded no goals in open play in three Champion’s League matches.

Pereira has also convinced forwards Hulk and Wu Lei to commit defensively, a consistent deficit in their games last year.

Of course, part of a strong defense is down to Yan Junling. Yan, tall and quick enough to play in pro basketball if things had gone that way, has clearly surpassed Evergrande’s Zeng Cheng as the best keeper in China.

Pereira will rely on Brazilians Hulk and Elkeson and the best domestic forward in the land, Wu Lei, for goals, fellow Brazilian Oscar and Uzbeki revelation Odil Akhmedov to direct the offense, and Cai Huikang, built like a tank but half as subtle, to anchor the defensive center midfield spot.

The game within the game

Roster management is going to be nearly as important as play on the field this season. There are several issues.

Because of the World Cup break, as well as ACL commitments, there are fixture traffic jams for SIPG in March and April and then again in July and August. Players are going to need rest to operate at their best. SIPG is well-placed in that regard because their roster includes three top-level strikers and three top-level midfielders.

But the big issue will be — for SIPG and every other team in the CSL — the ludicrous U23 rule. It bears repeating, if only because it’s so bizarre: at least one U23 player must start every CSL match, and the number of U23 players who appear must be equal to or greater the number of foreigners who appear.

(Late breaking news: the rule may be suspended in August and September because of youth tournaments.)

Since it’s very likely that three of SIPG’s four foreigners will start every match, SIPG is going to have to come up with three U23 players, too.

The SIPG roster has ten U23 players from which Pereira can choose. The key guys:

In goal: Chen Wei, 20 years old, started one of SIPG’s Champion’s League semi-final matches last year after Keeper-of-the-Year Yan was suspended. Chen handled himself well. However, Pereira has gone with the much older, yet utterly unexperienced Sun Le as back-up keeper in this year’s ACL matches.

Defenders: Zhang Huachen, 19. Made twelve token appearances last year.

Midfielders: Gao Haisheng, 21. Spent 2017 on the SIPG roster, but only appeared in one match. Sun Jungang, 22. Actually took the field in a 2016 Champion’s League match for SIPG, but last year was loaned to a third-division Japanese team. Ominously, Sun couldn’t crack their line-up and was returned to the People’s Republic early.

Forwards: Hu Jinghang, 20 years old, played regularly for Henan last year (27 matches) while out on loan from SIPG. Scored three goals. Chen Binbin, 20. Pereira may have tipped his hand here: Chen has appeared as a sub in the ACL this year after two appearances last year, one in the CSL, one in the FA Cup.

A guess as to how Pereira will work it out: With Hulk or Elkeson and Wu Lei providing the goals, SIPG can start Hu Jinghang or Chen Binbin up top, and Cai Huikang (if the game is close) and Oscar or Akhmedov (if it’s not) can come out for Gao or Sun. Zhang Huachen could see some time in the backline, although after SIPG’s shaky defensive performance last year, probably not in close matches. Given Pereira’s track record of getting his teams to tighten up defensively, it seems likely he’ll want to stick with Wang Shenchao, Shi Ke, He Guan and Yu Hai in the back most of the time.

It’s not impossible to imagine Chen Wei getting some starts between the posts.

Overall, coaches will engage in the same contemptuous manipulation of the U23 rule that we saw last year. Substitutions with Chinese characteristics, as it were.

The thing to watch is what happens when the SIPG offense gets to operating against substandard line-ups that teams are going to have to use because of this rule. The Red Eagles scored a CSL-leading 72 goals last year, 2.4/match. It seems likely that they’ll top that this year.

One potential issue is something that already bit Shenhua in the ass in the Super Cup: filling the roster with kids in order to flexibly operate within the U23 rule leaves teams short of experienced replacements if a starter goes down due to injury. The winner of the league may well be the team that stays the healthiest.

The big fixtures at Shanghai Stadium

While SIPG awaits the construction of a football-only stadium in Jinqiao, Pudong, opening perhaps as soon as 2020, Shanghai Stadium in Xujiahui remains their home. Tickets are cheap and the game-time atmosphere is excellent – between 20,000 and 35,000 raucous fans for almost every match.

Top matches on the calendar this year:

In the Champion’s League, March 7 against Ulsan Hyundai and April 4 against Kawasaki Frontale.

In the CSL, opening night is this Saturday against the suddenly formidable Dalian Yifang. The match will apparently be televised live at theaters throughout China owned by Dalian’s new owners, the Chinese megacorp Wanda.

In May, Beijing Guo’an (the fifth) and troubled Jiangsu Suning (the twentieth) come to town.

In July, defending league champion but SIPG patsy Guangzhou Evergrande hits the stadium on the twenty-first.

In August, Quanjian (the first) and the derby against Shenhua (the eleventh) highlight the schedule.

The crystal ball reveals…

In November, the final CSL standings will look like this:

Shanghai SIPG
Beijing Guo’an
Tianjin Quanjian
Guangzhou Evergrande
Dalian Yifang
Shandong Luneng
Hebei CFFC
Guangzhou R&F
Tianjin TEDA
Shanghai Shenhua
Chongqing Lifan
Guizhou Zhicheng
Jiangsu Suning
Changchun Yatai
Beijing Renhe
Henan Jianye

The Champions League

A win next week against Ulsan practically guarantees advancement from the group stage.

As we saw last year, the ACL draw for the Round of 16 and subsequent rounds does not include “country protection”; as a result, last year, SIPG ended up playing Jiangsu Suning and Guangzhou Evergrande in the first two knock-out rounds.

It’s at least possible — maybe a one in ten chance? — that SIPG and Shenhua end up in an ACL derby.

This year, the team that looks like a must-to-avoid is Jeonbuk Motors of South Korea. They won the whole thing in 2016 (knocking out SIPG in the quarterfinals), then were banned from the tournament last year after their involvement in a match-fixing scandal. Like SIPG, they’ve won their first two group matches in impressive fashion. SIPG and Jeonbuk are probably the co-favorites to win it all.

As usual, the ACL takes a long mid-summer break, with no matches scheduled between mid-May and late August. It’s a blessing for all the Chinese teams that advance out of the group stage: it means no ACL matches during the massive, post-World Cup CSL schedule rush.

FA Cup

Like all the CSL teams, SIPG will debut in the Cup in April in the fourth round. Their first opponent is  likely League One side Zhejiang Greentown. (Formerly Hangzhou Greentown, formerly of the CSL, formerly with ownership that cared if they won or lost).

Unlike most FA Cup competitions, in China, the entire draw is at the beginning, like a tennis tournament. SIPG was placed in what is easily the weaker half of that draw. Tianjin Quanjian and Beijing Guo’an are the only obvious obstacles on the way to a return appearance in the final.

The Red Eagles won’t host a match in the Cup at Shanghai Stadium until and if they play a CSL team; in the Chinese FA Cup, the team from the higher ranked league always plays on the road. If SIPG plays any League Two teams, SIPG will not be allowed to use any foreign players and against League One teams, only two.

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

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