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Fraught, emotional clash for SIPG, Shanghai derby and note on Demba Ba

This is your WEF home for all things SIPG. It’s been a topsy-turvy year in the CSL: Guizhou beat Shandong, Dalian smacked down Evergrande and Nantong Zhiyun knocked holders Shenhua out of the Cup. This week, Jeff Beresford-Howe looks on as SIPG adds their name to that list and plays another Shanghai derby.

It’s opposite week for SIPG

SIPG traveled to Dalian last week to take on flailing Yifang and hosted Shenhua in the derby, and as you’d expect, one was a workaday, almost rote victory and the other was a wildly emotional roller coaster ride with more than a soupçon of bitterness.

Of course it all worked out the opposite of the way you’d expect: the Dalian match was a brutal, fiercely emotional battle, which Yifang won 1-0, a revenge of sorts for their 8-0 humiliation at SIPG’s hands in the first CSL match of the season.

The Shenhua match was a 2-0 snoozefest of a win for SIPG and highlights a problem that’s turned the Shanghai derby into a non-event: SIPG has now won four CSL matches in a row against a relentlessly mediocre Shenhua, outscoring the men in blue 13-2. Only about 25,000 turned up for this one, partly down to a large and intrusive police presence, but partly because this match-up just hasn’t been very much fun to watch in the last couple of years.

Wu Lei and Oscar redeem the derby

As slow as the SIPG-Shenhua match was — you could market the first half as a sleep aid –there was one transcendent moment.

In the 52nd minute, Hulk stood over the ball for a free kick from about 20 meters, a prospect that will get the attention of every keeper in the league. Hulk approached the ball, then danced back. Oscar slipped in and took the kick, a delicate, curving touch volley around two defenders and into the right side of the box, where it found a streaking Wu Lei in stride. Wu took the ball in the air and slammed it past the helpless Shenhua keeper Li Shuai. It was a work of art, as elegant a goal as you can hope to see.

Twenty minutes later, an Oscar corner headed directly towards Hulk at the back post was foiled by Shenhua defender Zhang Lu, who wrapped his arms around Hulk and pulled him to the ground. Czech referee Radek Prihoda pointed to the spot immediately and despite some protests, the replay showed that Zhang was, if anything, lucky: Zhang’s foul wiped out a clear scoring chance. A lot of referees would have carded him.

After performing a stylish samba on his approach to the ball, Hulk converted the penalty and that was all she wrote.

Shenhua forced Yan Junling to make a couple of decent saves towards the end, but Shenhua’s Moreno, making an unexpectedly quick recovery from an ankle injury, was a non-factor and Demba Ba seemed lost.  (Elkeson, making his second straight CSL start for SIPG, was also MIA.)

Highlights:

A bruising affair in Dalian

The contrast with the Dalian match couldn’t have been more stark.

Say what you want about the cellar-dwelling Liaoning side, but former Real Madrid coach Bernd Schuster, hired a couple of weeks after a disastrous Dalian start, had his boys spitting fire against an SIPG side for which they clearly harbor hard feelings.

Yifang midfielders Zhu Xiaogang and Qin Sheng were at the center of it all. In the 14th minute, Qin slaughtered Oscar from behind, earning himself both an ovation from the crowd and a yellow, but he did not get the red he arguably deserved. Three minutes later, Zhu shoved and then headbutted Hulk, earning himself a yellow instead of the patently obvious red the situation called for. 

The match stayed rough and nasty throughout. Referee Ma Li was simply incapable of handling a match with this kind of emotional intensity. 

Both teams got into it again in the 39th minute, Qin and Shi Ke exchanging angry words that led to a bench clearing brawl and two red cards — one for an assistant coach on each team. 

Like pro wrestling, you had to take some of the violence with a grain of salt. Zhu, after a glancing blow from Akhmedov, pulled a full Neymar in the 9th minute, and even more egregiously, Dalian’s Wang Jinxian faked a blow to the head in the 43rd minute. If Ma Li had bothered to use VAR, something he never did during the match, he would have noticed it and issued a card. It seems like an obvious thing to say at this point, but if a player is alleging a blow to the head, with all that we now know about concussions, VAR should be automatic. 

Lest anyone think Ma Li incapable of administering discipline, think again: he did manage to give Hulk a yellow. For dissent. 

There were only two legit goal-scoring chances in the match: in the 29th minute, Dalian keeper Zhang Chong mishandled a shot from distance and Wu Lei pounced on it; Zhang perhaps got a fingertip on it to force Wu’s attempt wide.

In the 51st minute, Dalian’s Yannick Carrasco was left all alone in space in the box with Shi Ke. The Belgian didn’t waffle: he had time to change directions twice and shift feet with the ball before putting his shot past Yan Junling for the match’s only goal. It was an appalling amount of time for Shi to be left alone without help. Zhang Wei and He Guan were the closest, rather apathetic defenders. 

The Dalian win, combined with their win later in the week against Fuli, has pulled Dalian out of the relegation zone. Schuster seems to have righted the ship. It’s hard to imagine the team we saw on the field on Sunday having any further trouble avoiding a drop.

The Demba Ba situation

Last week’s Changchun-Shenhua match featured an ugly incident towards the end of the match. Shenhua’s Ba was called for a not particularly egregious foul after a collision. Changchun’s Zhang Li, obviously angry, approached him and shouted “You Black!” in Ba’s face. The Senegalese international went into an absolute rage, horse collaring Zhang and refusing to be mollified for several minutes. (Changchun’s Ighalo deserves some credit here for preventing the situation from getting worse. Also deserving credit: Zhang’s apparently incompetent English teachers.)

Zhang denied after the match that he said anything racist, but for what it’s worth, Ba’s reaction was in line with what you sometimes see when Black athletes have to confront racist language on athletic fields all over the world, and after the match, Ba “liked” a “say no to racism” tweet from his former club Besiktas. To their credit, the Shenhua club, both on twitter and in statements after the match, backed Ba’s version of events.

The CFA has responded in a fashion that can only be described as willfully ignorant: they’ve suspended Zhang for six matches for “interfering with the normal order of the game” and “causing chaos.” Not for racism.

Ba, who had what were likely some rather immoderate words for Zhang, and who actually committed a physical assault, got no penalty. The only reasonable explanation for this is that the CFA found, but did not want to admit, racist behavior on Zhang’s part.

That favorite tool of President Trump, the non-disclosure agreement, is reportedly part of the deal. 

It’s a huge missed opportunity for the CSL to confront racism, and it’s insulting to Demba Ba and the other thirteen African players in the CSL that they didn’t, a de facto statement that the CFA values it’s own reputation more than defending it’s players. 

Black football players face racism in the cities and the towns all over the world in which they practice their profession; one of the things you hear many of them say is that they think of the field as the one place they can go where all that matters is if they’re good or not. It can be shattering to find that even there, bigotry can find them.

It would have been nice to see SIPG make some sort of gesture of support for Ba on the pitch at Shanghai Stadium last Saturday night.

What’s Next

Wednesday night at the Stadium, Guangzhou R&F is in town for what could be a shootout between the second and fourth highest scoring teams in the league and the two leading goal scorers: Wu Lei with 14 and Fuli’s Eran Zahavi with 13. 

SIPG will then fly to Chongqing over the weekend and play the decidedly unspicy Lifan, who have picked up one point in their last four matches and have replaced Dalian in the drop zone. 

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

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