Guangzhou R&F looked relegation in the face and lived to tell the tale. Seven points from their final three games means the Cantonese will play in the CSL next season.
Guizhou 0 – 2 Guangzhou R&F
Grinding out wins and keeping clean sheets are phrases not commonly associated with R&F. When they needed it most, R&F showed that they could do it though. The same applies to Zahavi. The Israeli may not have hit the heights of 2017 but he still scored 3 times in R&F’s final four games, including the high pressure game at Guizhou. On a pock marked pitch, Zahavi slid in for the opener after Guizhou didn’t properly clear Lu Lin’s cross. Lu doubled R&F’s lead just before half time when he showed the importance of being able to shoot with both feet. His left footed volley was blocked but there was no stopping his right footed curler in the top corner.
At the other end, Stojković had gambled by pairing Tosic and Junior Urso at centre back in a relative unusual, for R&F, 4-4-2 formation. First choice centre back Yi Teng was injured but playing Urso there was a bold choice, especially as a more conventional option would have been to keep Urso in midfield – YN doesn’t remember Urso playing at centre back before – and put Li Tixiang at the back as he has plenty of experience there from earlier in the season. An easy selection to criticise if it went wrong but the gamble paid off so credit to Stojković.
It was R&F’s fourth clean sheet of the season and the result sent Guizhou down. With others at the bottom of the table winning, R&F weren’t quite safe yet though.
Guangzhou R&F 2 – 1 Hebei
A few days later the same eleven took to the field for R&F’s final home game of the season. The Yuexiushan crowd did not leave disappointed. An early own goal put R&F ahead before Li Tixiang and Xiao Zhi teed up Zahavi for his 20th of the season. The Israeli finished third in the race for the golden boot, behind Changchun’s Ighalo and SIPG’s Wu Lei.
The Cantonese escaped a VAR referral for a potential late penalty but they were denied a second successive clean sheet as former R&F captain Jiang Zhipeng got an assist for a Hernanes header. This is not the time to complain about how Hernanes beat Li Tixiang in the air though. Coupled with results elsewhere, the win secured CSL football for the Cantonese in 2018.
Beijing Renhe 0 – 0 Guangzhou R&F
Almost unbelievably, if R&F had beaten Renhe and results elsewhere went their way they could have finished in 6th. It wasn’t to be though. Nine of the starting eleven played their third game in a week and came up short of getting a third win in a row. In a game of few clear cut changes, the R&F defence notched up another clean sheet.
Where were these results earlier in the season? The final week of the season was only the third time in 2018 that R&F put back-to-back wins together, three games unbeaten was R&F’s second longest period without defeat, and conceding just one goal in three games was R&F’s best run of the season. Reacting well to pressure? Rediscovering their quality? Finally getting some luck that deserted them earlier in the season? Facing demotivated opposition? Whatever the reason, the final results made what threatened to be a disastrous season into ‘just’ a disappointing one.
Despite worries about relegation going into the final week of the season, R&F finished just outside the top half of the table in ninth. In truth, top half holds little value in measuring a CSL team’s quality in 2018. A better division would probably be the top five, 6-15th, and then Guizhou who despite some late season wins finished comfortably bottom of the table. However you divide the table, the Cantonese did not live up to the promise they showed last season.
This will be an important transfer window for Guangzhou R&F. There will be no surprises about the main priority: defence. The Cantonese conceded 61 goals in the CSL, the second most in the league. Having the fifth most potent attack in the league covered this up in some games, but couldn’t across the course of the season. With questions about Xiao Zhi and Zahavi’s effectiveness, there may also be some changes in the forward line.
The club were all but inactive in the past two transfer windows in terms of signing players for the first team, perhaps lulled into a sense of security by a brilliant run at the end of 2017. The 2018 season has shown what can happen when others invest and you don’t. The 2019 transfer window will be complicated by speculation about changes to foreign player quotas, the U23 rule, and what happens to the players currently in the U25 military training camp (R&F have three). Plenty to watch out for over the off-season then.
Stojković has managed over 100 R&F games and has probably earned himself a chance to stay at Yuexiushan for 2019 should he want it. If he does stay, he’ll have a Pearl River derby with Shenzhen to look forward to when the CSL resumes in the Spring.
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