On a sweaty evening an hour’s drive north of Chengdu, Jiangsu Suning snuck past Sichuan Annapurna courtesy of a 91st minute own goal to reach the fifth round of the Chinese FA Cup.
Dujiangyan may be a city more renowned for panda sanctuaries and ancient irrigation systems than footballing prowess, but the China League Two leaders proved a combative and well-drilled opposition and was on the verge of forcing extra-time when disaster stuck.
Having reached three finals in the past four seasons, the Nanjingers boast a proud history in the FA Cup and Cosmin Olaroiu eschewed notions of ‘fixture congestion’ popular to many a Chinese Super League manager by selecting a strong side.
The likes of in-form Ji Xiang, Liu Jianye, and Wang Song ensured the visitors maintained rhythm and purpose while in possession. However, unlike in Sunday’s demolition of Shanghai Shenhua, Jiangsu lacked a clinical edge. Huang Zichang, despite being the club’s most promising young forward in recent memory, remains a work-in-progress and operates better when playing in conjunction with a more physical teammate.
The Dujiangyan Phoenix Stadium pitch was slick with rain threatening throughout, as evidenced by the hoards of away supporters bundled up in Jiangsu-blue ponchos. And it was the surface that nearly granted the visitors an opening inside half an hour when Sichuan’s goalkeeper juggled a Xie Pengfei shot awkwardly on his goal line. Jiangsu maintained its pressure and Wang Song, a player who has seen limited playing time since the Romanian coach’s arrival, went close first with a shot from distance and later from a thumping header.
Sichuan entered the match unbeaten in 2018 and grew in confidence after the interval, though the hosts were largely constricted to shots from distance and set piece routines. Sichuan dropped deeper and invited pressure on themselves as the minutes ticked down. The bumper home crowd seemed to anticipate extra time and the possibility of an upset.
When comparing teams across divisions, emphasis is often given to differences of technical aptitude and tactical nous. Here however, fitness and stamina were of far greater significance. And although it was a redshirt that finally broke the deadlock for Jiangsu, the goal came as Sichuan stood back exhausted longing for the final whistle. Calamity for Sichuan happened as substitute Wu Xi found Huang in ample space and the youngster’s driven cutback was turned in by the momentum of Chen Shaoqin.
A rollicking victory over Yangtze rivals was always going to be a difficult act to follow, yet Olaroiu is bound to have found a certain satisfaction from this gritty win on a muggy afternoon in the Sichuan foothills.
Jiangsu Suning will travel to Tianjin Quanjian for the fifth round of the Chinese FA Cup.
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