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The main event is finally here: Shanghai SIPG v Evergrande, Saturday night, CSL title decider

Shanghai SIPG

This is your WEF home for all things SIPG. Today, a look ahead to the biggest match in SIPG history, and maybe league history, and a backward glance or two at Shandong’s visit to town last weekend.

Let’s get ready to rumble

SIPG and Evergrande took care of business on Sunday. SIPG beat Shandong Luneng Sunday night at the Stadium, 4-2. Earlier in the day, Evergrande swatted away doomed Guizhou Hengfeng 3-0.

That sets up perhaps the biggest single match in CSL history: next Saturday night at Tianhe, SIPG against Evergrande. It’s not Winner Take All, but it’s close enough. Whoever ends up on top will be the prohibitive favorite to win the CSL. If SIPG wins, the King is dead, long live the King. If Guangzhou wins, well, it was a trick that the Death Star was still under construction. 

The two sides don’t come into the match exactly even: SIPG has a two-point edge in the table, which means Evergrande has to win, but SIPG would be just fine with a draw.

Astonishingly, in their seven years bossing the league, this is the first must-win match Evergrande has ever played. The closest they’ve come to such an occasion was on Halloween, 2015, the last day of that season. Guangzhou visited Beijing Guo’an at Gongti holding a two-point lead over SIPG. With SIPG playing simultaneously (and beating Liaoning), Guangzhou needed a win or a draw to win the league. They beat Guo’an 2-0 on goals by Goulart and Paulinho. 

SIPG may be the only team in the league that is no longer prey to the Guangzhou mystique; they’ve won four of the last five matches the two teams have played, knocked them out of both the Asian Champion’s League and the FA Cup last year, and beat them in the CSL at Shanghai Stadium earlier this year. Their record at Tianhe is not bad: in their last five trips, they have a win, two draws and two losses.

If Shanghai manager Vitor Pereira follows recent form, and with the U23 rule dead and likely to never return, SIPG will line-up against Guangzhou with Lue Wenjun, Wu Lei and Elkeson up top, Hulk and Oscar as attacking midfielders, Cai Huiking as a defensive midfielder, and a backline of, from left to right, Zhang Wei, Shi Ke, Wang Shenchao and Fu Huan. Yan Junling, the best keeper in the People’s Republic, will be between the posts. 

SIPG hasn’t lost a match since Elkeson replaced Akhmedov in the third foreigner slot.

With Yu Hai, who was having a tremendous season, injured, and He Guan out of favor, Pereira has shuffled his backline with mixed results. Wang Shenchao has moved from wing to center back, joining Shi Ke, and Zhang and Fu are outside. Wang is a standout in the middle, but Zhang is sometimes shaky defensively and barely participates when SIPG has the ball. SIPG probably wishes Fu would do the same; he just doesn’t have any positional attacking sense. 

Zhang and Fu are who they are, but one big surprise against Shandong was Shi Ke, Wang’s center-back partner. Normally steady, Shi made a whole series of godawful misfires on passes in the first half. He is going to have to shake that off against Guangzhou if SIPG is going to win. 

Shandong didn’t bring much to the table

On a comfortable, crisp Sunday late October night at the Stadium, SIPG took control early against Shandong and coasted for most of the match. A gorgeous sixteenth minute backwards, diagonal pass from Lue Wenjun found Wu Lei all by his lonesome at the top of the box and the CSL’s leading scorer, brimming with confidence, found the back of the net. 

Two successful penalties from Hulk – one after Shandong back-up keeper Han Rongze, making his seventh lifetime start in the CSL, took down Wu Lei in the box without getting in the same zip code as the ball, the other on a handball awarded after VAR – gave SIPG a 3-0 halftime lead.

There were some anxious moments in the second half after Hulk botched a clearance, leading to a very athletic goal from Pelle in the fifty-seventh minute, and then a second goal from the Italian when he simply out jumped Wang Shenchao for an eighty-fifth minute header. Order was restored moments later when an Elkeson shot bounced off the post and directly on to the foot of Wu Lei for the brace and one of the easiest goals he’ll ever score.

It was the 100th goal of Wu’s CSL career, the most of anyone who’s ever played in the league.  It was also his twenty-fifth of the season, to give him a four-goal advantage in the race for the Golden Boot over Changchun’s Ighalo.

(Wu could have been sitting on 101 and 26 and a hat trick, but he missed a very easy header in the seventh minute off a gorgeous Oscar pass.)

Shandong perhaps lacked a little motivation. If they win the FA Cup in November against Guo’an, they get silverware and and an automatic Champion’s League slot. If they lose to Guo’an in the Cup, they get an ACL playoff slot. Nothing Shandong does in the CSL the last few weeks is of consequence.


By the numbers

SIPG has the best road record in the league: seven wins, four draws and two losses. 

No matter what happens at Tianhe, each team will have two matches remaining. SIPG hosts Renhe, a team they’ve already beaten twice this season, and a team that will have nothing to play for, but the other three matches (SIPG at Quanjian and Guangzhou at Chongqing and hosting TEDA), are against teams involved in the massive relegation scrum at the bottom of the table. They could be facing desperate teams or teams that don’t have much to play for. 

The only thing you can safely say is that if SIPG beats Evergrande and takes a five point lead into their remaining matches, it’s inconceivable that SIPG won’t find a way to get the one point they’d need to wrap up the league. It’s trickier for Evergrande: if they win, their lead is one point, and they’ll need to avoid a stumble. If the match is a draw, SIPG would need four points out of the six available to guarantee a championship. 

Oscar and Hulk have twelve goals each, tied for 13th in the CSL, and Talisca’s remarkable run since signing with Guangzhou continues: he has 15 goals in 15 matches. Guangzhou’s Dong Hanwen is one of the dirtiest players in the league, with eight disciplinary points so far. (No SIPG player is in the top 50 in that category, which is led by Changchun’s Yu Rui, who has seven yellows and two reds for thirteen points.)

Odds and Ends

Police, terrified by the construction of a park around Shanghai Stadium, continue to limit attendance at SIPG matches. There were more empty seats than filled on Sunday night against Shandong, despite which the box office announced a “sell out.” Because of the thoughtful and timely actions of the constabulary, many thousands of Shanghai citizens were able to avoid a potential danger with the shrubs they would have encountered if they’d decided to scale the eight-foot fences that wall off the construction areas. 

Pereira’s three-match suspension for sarcastic clapping continues through the Evergrande match. It’s now confirmed that Guangzhou keeper Zeng Cheng will not earn a suspension for using his national team position to promote the use of illegal drugs in China. Pereira aide Filipe Almeida has been SIPG’s game-time manager during this stretch. 

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

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