This is your WEF home for all things SIPG. This week, Jeff Beresford-Howe looks at SIPG beginning the CSL season with another addition to the trophy case.
After losing the best Chinese player in history, Wu Lei, to Spanish side Espanyol this offseason and declining to make any additions to the club for the second straight year – one man’s “stability” is another man’s “paralysis” – it’s become fashionable to write off the defending CSL champions.
But reports of SIPG’s demise may have been exaggerated. The Red Eagles opened the Chinese football season Saturday night at Suzhou Olympic Center by brushing aside a highly touted Beijing Guo’an team 2-0 and walked off with their first Chinese Super Cup.
Both sides in form right from the start
Any questions about whether this match meant anything were dispelled immediately. SIPG and Guo’an, going at each other for the fifth time in less than a year, came out playing hard and kept it up for 90 minutes. After a scintillating but scoreless first half, with Guo’an having the lion’s share of the ball but SIPG repeatedly threatening on counters and turnovers, SIPG finally broke through shortly after the start of the second half with the two goals that decided the match.
The first was from defender Wang Shenchao, sneaking in deep down the flank and receiving a perfect pass from midfielder Cai Huikang, whose 2019 look suggests he hit the off-season banquet circuit hard. Wang’s shot against the grain caught the left post, traveled across the goal mouth, hit the right post and went in.
Relying less on good fortune was Lye Wenjun, who burst through the middle a few minutes later, received a perfect through ball from Wang (Oscar contributed an artful dummy), walked in alone and cooly slotted the ball past a helpless Guo’an keeper Guo Quanbo.
That it took so long to score for either team was down to spectacular work in the nets from Guo and SIPG’s Yan Junling. Guo’s 34th minute, hockey-style kick save on Hulk may end up as the best save in the CSL all year, and Yan made eight saves, almost all of them difficult, and was named Man of the Match.
Life without Wu Lei
This was the first game without Wu on the roster that SIPG has played since the Red Eagles were in League Two in 2006, and there was considerable interest in how SIPG manager Vitor Pereira would handle it.
As expected, Pereira started Lyu Wenjun in Wu’s spot. Oscar and Hulk, who remains team captain, took up two of the foreigner slots, but perhaps hoping to compensate for the 27 missing goals represented by Wu, Pereira chose to use his last foreigner allocation on scoring machine Elkeson rather than midfielder Odil Akhmedov.
Fu Huan, who lost his job last year as a defender, is back in the starting line-up as a midfielder, and he looked vastly more confident on the ball than he ever has before. Wei Zhen started as the right back and looked better than last year defensively, but remains utterly clueless with the ball. Wei gave way to veteran Yu Hai, still rehabbing from last Fall’s injury, in the 72nd minute.
Wang Shenchao, who started last year defending on the right side and shifted to the middle towards the end of the season, played this match on the left side.
Cai Huikang, Shi Ke and He Guan were in their usual spots in the line-up.
It was no accident that both goals were by Chinese players. Elkeson was mostly missing in action and while Hulk would have had a goal against most keepers on most nights, he also misfired several times in a manner reminiscent of most of last season.
The scene in Suzhou
The Suzhou Olympic Center is in the middle of nowhere, but it was an excellent host. The stadium is modern and attractive, and while it’s got the dreaded running track endemic in stadium construction in China, the seating area is steeply raked and provides good views.
25,000 or so turned up for the match, not counting the hundreds, if not thousands, of riot police. The crowd was mostly rooting for SIPG or there as neutrals, but whoever they supported, they saw something that precious few Chinese football fans have ever seen: the stadium scoreboard provided a live broadcast of the match. Yes, the replays were blacked out – as Nietzsche said, “He who would learn to fly one day must first learn to stand and walk and run…” – but it was a welcome nod to the modern football world.
The lack of replays kept hostility to referee Zhang Lei to a minimum, but not through lack of effort from Zhang. He nearly lost control of the match several times and made boneheaded mistakes, including failing to draw lines on the turf during important free kicks and thoroughly botching SIPG’s last-minute attempts to get the required U23 substitute on the pitch.
Zhang was bailed out by Oscar, of all people, who had the presence of mind to commit an intentional foul to stop play and make sure an apoplectic Pereira could substitute in Huang Zhenfei. No good deed goes unpunished: Zhang gave Oscar a yellow for his trouble.
Player to be named later
John Hou Saeter, the Norwegian whose mother was born in China and has become a naturalized Chinese citizen in order to play football in China, made his debut for Guo’an as a substitute in the 72nd minute.
Hou Yongyong (the name on his brand new Chinese passport) was heartily booed when he entered the match. The reaction to Saeter will be a subplot at Guo’an games throughout the year.
SIPG opens the season Friday night at Hongkou Stadium against Shenhua and then opens it’s home season and play in the ACL the Wednesday after that at Shanghai Stadium against Kawasaki Frontale. The Stadium remains under renovation – as this is written, the “fins” that decorate the outside of the stadium are skeletal and the entrances are blocked off – and it’s not known what, restrictions, if any, will be in place for ticket sellers.
SIPG will play Shenhua and the CSL home opener against Jiangsu Suning on March 9 without four players called up for Olympic team duty: Hu Jinghang, Lei Wenjie, Li Shenyuan and Chen Wei.
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