This is your WEF home for all things SIPG. Today, Jeff Beresford-Howe looks at a red letter day in the CSL as SIPG takes a four-point lead at the top of the table with eight matches to go.
Evergrande bosses SIPG all over the pitch
“Life isn’t fair. It never was and it never will be.”
– President John F. Kennedy
Strong words from the man perhaps most famous for saying “I am a jelly doughnut,” but the truth of it was laid out for all to see at Shanghai Stadium Tuesday night, where Guangzhou Evergrande utterly dominated SIPG for 105 minutes in almost every way one football team can dominate another.
Evergrande had two-thirds of possession, they outshot SIPG 18-5, had nine corner kicks to one for SIPG, they were a constant threat to score and, less tangibly, the seven-time defending CSL champions had the air of inevitability that’s been associated with them for so long. The first half, in particular, was about as one-sided a spanking as SIPG has endured in the big-money era.
All of which earned Evergrande this: a 2-1 loss which has left them in dire straits in the CSL title race, four points behind SIPG with eight matches remaining, level with Guo’an in second place.
It’s going to leave them feeling snakebit, not just because they were in control and lost but because SIPG has now handed them four defeats and a draw in their last seven meetings.
SIPG defenders play their hearts out
How did SIPG survive? Start with the back line.
Facing the most intense pressure the league has to offer, Wang Shenchao (unexpectedly playing on the left side in place of Yu Hai), Shi Ke, He Guan and Fu Huan were nearly flawless. They blocked shots, were rarely out of position, didn’t botch clearances and didn’t leave people unmarked. SIPG keeper Yan Junling also did his part: he stoned Paulinho in the 78th minute and Huang Bowen in the 91st, preventing Evergrande from getting an equalizer.
It was the best defensive effort in SIPG’s history and proof of concept that Coach Vitor Pereira is a defensive wizard. This was not a match SIPG would have won before Pereira. SIPG allowed 1.3 goals/match last year under AVB and many, many of those were goals down to awful defending; this year, it’s 1.0, the best mark in the CSL, and as the season has proceeded, SIPG has gotten tighter and tighter defensively.
Meanwhile, SIPG’s league-leading offense provided almost exactly nothing, except for two brief, transcendent moments.
Forty-five seconds into the match, a gorgeous through ball from Oscar led Wu Lei in alone on Guangzhou keeper Zeng Cheng. Wu was at a bit of an angle on the right side, but acting with complete confidence, he took his time and then buried an absolute rocket into the upper left hand corner of the net.
It was Wu’s 21st goal of the season, giving him a four-goal lead in the race for the golden boot. Israeli Eran Zahavi of Fuli and Nigerian Odion Ighalo of Changchun have 17. (Five of Ighalo’s have come on PKs, while Zahavi only has one PK and Wu none.)
After Paulinho had evened the score in the fifty-sixth minute, and with the crowd best described as in a state of dread, Oscar found himself in the 71st minute with a free kick from 35 meters out. Guangzhou clearly expected a long, arcing ball into the box – with good reason; Oscar is the best in the league at that – but instead the Brazilian tapped a gorgeous touch pass, which Guangzhou’s Yu Hanchao, 10 meters away, inexplicably let go by. Elkeson leaked out from the pack in the center of the box and found himself with an unimpeded left-footer 12 meters out. He one-timed it past Zheng, giving the Red Eagles the 2-1 lead they clung to like grim death thereafter.
Oscar’s two assists give him 16 for the season, easily tops in the league. (Oscar also has eleven goals and leads the league in key passes and is second in through balls, to Guo’an’s Jonathan Viera.)
In the most important CSL match of the season to date, the CSL bypassed available Chinese referees (which is to say, all of them; rescheduled after a typhoon postponement, this was the only mid-week CSL contest) and went with Hungarian Viktor Kassai as match referee.
Kassai, who refereed the 2011 UEFA Champion’s League final, was outstanding under trying circumstances. Besides the three that counted, Evergrande and SIPG put the ball in the net five other times, and five times Kassai, sometimes with help from VAR, ruled no goal. That takes an enormous amount of self-confidence and judgement. Replays showed that all five times, it was the right call: four offsides and a hand ball.
Kassai also allowed exactly the right amount of dissent in an emotional match, wouldn’t let either team bully him and wouldn’t let Guangzhou get away with their habitual rules-skirting quick restarts or obstruction of SIPG restarts. Most interestingly, Kassai took to heart the World Cup study about added time – it showed that referees almost never give enough of it – and awarded six minutes at the end of the first half and nine at the end of the second half.
From the point of view of SIPG fans, the added time was enervating, but it’s hard to argue that Kassai got it wrong. It is difficult to imagine any Chinese referee with the stature to disallow all those goals, handle the stars on SIPG and Evergrande with such equanimity or make those decisions about added time.
Changchun comes to town on Saturday night. Before the season, they were often included in conversations about potential relegees, but they will arrive in Shanghai safe from that fate, 7th on the table and with Ighalo having knocked in ten goals since the CSL restarted after the World Cup.
Evergrande will stay in the area, playing Jiangsu in Nanjing Saturday night, while Guo’an travels to Guiyang to take on Guizhou Hengfeng, last in the league and almost certainly doomed to relegation.
Yu Hai, who traveled to the Middle East with the Chinese national team over the international break, did not play against Evergrande, and neither did Uzbeki midfielder Akhmedov. In characteristic CSL fashion, information on whether this was a coach’s decision or they’re battling injuries was hard to come by.
Is it too early to go match by match? After Changchun, September 29 SIPG will travel to Gongti and play Guo’an. The Beijingers will no longer have any realistic chance at the title if they lose that one. After that, SIPG hosts Guizhou, travels to Nanjing, hosts reeling Shandong, travels to Evergrande, hosts Renhe and then finishes the season facing whatever is left of Quanjian in Tianjin.