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SIPG marches into Tianhe and wrests the crown from Evergrande, 5-4

This is your WEF home for all things SIPG. Today, Jeff Beresford-Howe looks at the first new champion in the CSL since 2011.

“When you kill a King, you don’t stab him in the dark. You kill him where the entire court can watch him die.”

It was like a title fight, a good one, the kind they used to have, like Ali and Frazier. Two heavyweights landing blows, two champions determined not to yield.  SIPG and Evergrande threw everything they had at each other Saturday night at Tianhe and produced the greatest match in Chinese football history.

And when it was over, the 50,000 at the stadium and the millions watching on CCTV-5 and around the world were looking at a new champion in the CSL. SIPG walked away with a 5-4 win, taking out the seven-time defending champions on their own turf.

As Bundesliga referee Bastian Dankert blew his whistle in the 98th minute to signal full time, Paulinho and Zeng Cheng and Cannavaro (has he coached his last match for Evergrande that matters?) looked on in disbelief. Gao Lin scowled – ok, sure, he’s always scowling – and jubilant Red Eagles hugged each other and broke into grins as wide as all outdoors. SIPG still has a bit of business to take care of (they need at least a draw in one of their two remaining matches), but no one had any doubt about what they’d just seen.

The first punch

The first roundhouse was nearly two hours earlier, and it was landed by SIPG. At the fourteen minute mark, an Oscar corner was deflected out of bounds, giving SIPG a corner on the other side. Rather than waiting for Oscar to come all the way over, Hulk hastened to the kick. His effort bounced off a Guangzhou defender, then off Lyu Wenjun and into the net past helpless Guangzhou keeper Zeng Cheng. You wouldn’t say Lyu was trying to redirect the ball, but he was, as he has been so often for SIPG this year, in the right place at the right time.

The goal came decidedly with the run of play: despite some obvious nerves, SIPG dominated the first fifteen minutes, with Lyu (stoned by Zeng after Hulk led him in alone on the keeper) and Wu Lei narrowly missing goals.

Lue’s goal woke up Guangzhou, and the next fifteen minutes were all theirs, capped by a curling free kick in the thirtieth minute from Li Xuepeng that found a gaggle of SIPG and Evergrande players in the middle of the box. Paulinho simply out jumped and outmuscled the lot of them and struck a world class header past Yan Junling to level the match at one. 

The wild card

The match then settled into the pattern it would keep the rest of the way: an occasionally frantic back-and-forth, with neither side dominating for very long. Out of this maelstrom, no one could have imagined what came next. A long effort from Hulk wasn’t cleanly cleared by Evergrande and bounced around in the box, finally landing 18 meters out on the foot of Cai Huikang. To that point, the SIPG defending midfielder had racked up a total of three goals in 166 Chinese Super League matches, but he struck this one like he thought he was Ronaldo, a beautifully aimed shot through traffic towards the left hand corner of the net that was powerfully struck enough to get past Zeng even after he got his hand on it. 

It was a once-in-a-lifetime effort from Cai, and once is one more time than he will ever again have to buy a beer within the Shanghai city limits. It was the kind of shock goal that makes a team think, “Ah, crap, it’s not our day,” but Evergrande would not be that team.

A gift from Yan 

It took the defending champions all of three minutes to equalize, courtesy of a glancing Alan header. Then, disaster for SIPG: as added time ticked down in the first half, a Yan Junling clearance throw nowhere near any potential target sailed out of bounds. Guangzhou pounced. A quick shot after a throw in led to a spectacular Yan save, but the effort knocked him to his knees at the goal line, leaving the ball on Paulinho’s foot one meter out. Showing preternatural calm, the Brazilian went top shelf and gave Evergrande the 3-2 lead they’d hold into halftime.

The stunning turnabout could have put SIPG down for the count, and the gloom among supporters at halftime was palpable. “We took our best shot, and it wasn’t quite good enough.”

But: Hulk

The SIPG captain has not, truthfully, had his best year, but on this night, he was the best player on the pitch, and five minutes into the second half, he won a 50-50 ball at midfield and sliced apart the Guangzhou defense with a perfectly placed and weighted ball to Wu Lei, who split two defenders and burst in along on Zeng. The first-choice forward and first-choice keeper for the Chinese national team have probably done this against each in practice a million times, but never with this much on the line. Wu went up and to his right, a perfect chip inside the post that gave Zeng no chance and SIPG had the match level at three with 40 minutes to go. 

The pace noticeably dropped a few minutes later, with SIPG more careful – a draw suited their purposes – and Guangzhou unable to generate good chances.

A Talisca miss on a gorgeous opportunity in the middle of the box in the 68th minute was Guangzhou’s only quality chance the rest of the way.  (The Brazilian, who had 15 goals in 15 matches this year since coming over from Besiktas in the Turkish league, and who just signed a lucrative long-term contract with Evergrande, was not much of a factor this night.)

Guangzhou paid dearly for the squandered opportunity. There is no better long-ball passer in the CSL, maybe even the whole world, than Oscar. In the 80th minute, he found himself with the ball on the left sideline, a little past midfield. Somehow, he picked out Wang Shenchao going back door on the Guangzhou defense and passed 60 meters on the fly, the ball landing on Wang’s foot as if his mother had laid it there herself.

From five meters out, Wang opted to pass the ball into the middle. An alert Zhang Chenglin stuck his foot out to intercept, but disastrously, succeeded only in deflecting the ball past Zeng for an own goal and a 4-3 SIPG lead with only 10 minutes remaining.

The air went out of the stadium. The Tianhe faithful went quiet, with songs from the away section the only audible noise. Many filed out to beat the traffic, and they missed the coup de grace: eight minutes later, Hulk, who thought to kill some time dribbling in the corner, spotted an opening and dribbled around two defenders and then past Paulinho, who got turned around and put up his hands to keep his balance, accidentally striking Hulk in the face and bringing him down in the box. Dankert made the only call he could make, and Hulk, one penalty samba later, salted away the match for SIPG, 5-3. 

A 94th minute handball call on SIPG’s He Guan, who’d come into the match a half an hour earlier, gave Alan a consolation penalty to make the final 5-4.

Highlights

Odds and ends

Credit where credit is due to the CFA: as they have in many of the CSL’s biggest matches this year,  brought in a foreign referee who was both solid and an obvious upgrade over the available domestic referees. 

Wu Lei’s goal, and the failure of Ighalo to score in Changchun’s loss to Shandong leaves Wu five goals up in the race for the Golden Boot. Boot holder Zahavi, who scored for Fuli in their win over Guizhou, is now only two goals behind Ighalo for second place. Wu is the only one of the top seven scorers in the league who has scored all his goals from open play. 

Vitor Pereira made two surprise moves against Evergrande: first, he restored Akhmedov to the starting line-up ahead of Elkeson, changing the look of the SIPG attack. Evergrande never found an answer. The Red Eagles could have had six or seven goals. Then, in the 66th minute, he subbed He Guan in for Zhang Wei and moved Wang Shenchao back to an outside position, which is why Wang was able to be in an attacking position for SIPG’s fourth goal. 

Pereira is, without a doubt, the manager of the year in the CSL. From the Hulk captaincy, and convincing the Brazilian to completely buy in, to helping Oscar become the best player in the CSL, to shifting Yu Hai to the back, where he shined, to the elimination of the silly mistakes in the back that plagued SIPG the previous two seasons (resulting in eight clean sheets in the CSL this year), to the way he juggled Elkeson and Akhmedov, to his handling of the U23 fiasco, to moving Wang Shenchao inside, where he was a rock, to his tactical moves against Evergrande, almost everything Pereira did worked.

SIPG has now won five of their last six matches against Evergrande and in the span of 15 months, has knocked Guangzhou out of the CSL title, the Asian Champion’s League and the FA Cup.

What’s next

SIPG can clinch the championship on their home turf Wednesday night against Beijing Renhe. The Red Eagles finish in Tianjin against Quanjian over the weekend. Evergrande plays the two teams tied for the last relegation spot: they visit Chongqing on Wednesday and host TEDA on Sunday.  Any combination of results except two SIPG losses and two Guangzhou wins means that Shanghai SIPG is champion. 

Because of the new Champion’s League allocation system, both SIPG and Evergrande will begin ACL play in the group stage next year. The Cup winner, Guo’an or Shandong, will do the same. If Shandong loses the Cup, they’ll be in a January playoff match to get into the group stage. Guo’an, however, still has a shot at missing the Champion’s League entirely if they lose the Cup and lose their last two CSL matches while Jiangsu wins their last two.

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

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