This is your WEF home for all things SIPG. This week, Jeff Beresford-Howe looks at an extraordinary stretch of games that concluded with SIPG in pole position for more silverware.
It was a death march: three matches on the road in eight days covering the length and breadth of China, all in mid-30s temperatures. SIPG has finished it “exhausted,” manager Vitor Pereira says, and the trip was a decidedly mixed bag. There’s disappointment in the CSL, but glory (with the promise of more) in the Cup.
Fernandinho is still in Chongqing
The hejira began in Chongqing, where new manager hire Jordi Cruyff has spiced up the local side to the point that they’ve already beaten SIPG once this year and are been hovering just underneath the CSL’s top four.
This was always going to be one of the tougher challenges for SIPG on the road this year, but no one saw this coming:
It’s the goal of the year in the CSL. That’s five, count ‘em, five guys Fernandinho dribbles around, through and by, and then he puts a sharply angled shot in just about the only place Yan Junling leaves him to shoot, just inside the far post.
It came at the end of a first half that had mostly gone SIPG’s way. The Red Eagles didn’t score because Hulk missed two fairly easy chances, so Fernandinho’s wonder goal put Chongqing up 1-0 going into the locker room.
(Never mind that Fernandinho’s not even supposed to be in Chongqing; he’s been identified as one of the players in the Guangzhou/naturalization scam and was supposed to be in Hebei on loan.)
SIPG was all over a beleaguered Chongqing to start the second half. Hulk hit the crossbar just after play resumed, Oscar put one in a couple of minutes later (uncharitably credited as an own goal because of a deflection), and then at 52’, Pereira called for Marko Arnautovic’s SIPG debut. Ten minutes later, for the first time but certainly not the last, an Oscar cross found Arnautovic and he headed it into the net with authority.
Then, ah crap, Fernandinho again.
With twenty minutes to go, Fernandinho brought a drab Chongqing attack to life by dribbling/storming up the middle of the pitch into the area. He Guan was late coming over – or reluctant to get in the way of the Brazilian freight train – and stuck out his leg, knocking Fernandinho ass over teakettle.
Referee Kun Ai pointed to the spot, reasonably so, it must be said, and Alan Kardec buried the penalty for 2-2.
All that remained was a piece of terrible refereeing by Kun, who gave Cai Huikang a yellow a few minutes later for blocking a free kick as part of a wall. Kun believed that the shot struck Cai’s arm, which it did – while Cai’s body was turned 90 degrees from the play and his arm was glued to his body. It was an impossibly stupid call, and since it was Cai’s second yellow, it earned him a red and a suspension against Wuhan.
Off to Guangzhou
Pereira’s plan was to give the regulars rest in the CSL matches that were part of this trip – Hu Jinghang, Fu Huan and Zhang Wei all started in Chongqing – and use his top line-up against Evergrande on Wednesday in the quarterfinals of the Cup.
It was a strategy replicated by Evergrande; while most of the eight teams left in the Cup sent half-strength squads, these two went at each other with all they had. Cheers to both of them.
With all the stars on the pitch, the clear difference maker in the match was Hulk. He played one of the finest matches he’s played in red, scoring on a brilliant header from 12 yards out early on, then serving as the middle man between Arnautovic and Oscar on a three-on-three late in the match that settled things and should be taught in soccer schools.
And speaking of schooling, there’s the SIPG defending: Evergrande only had one real scoring chance in the whole match, and that came very late, after the issue had been decided. Shi Ke, Wang Shenchao, Zhang Wei, He Guan and Wei Zhen were outstanding as the last SIPG line of defense. It’s probably been a decade or so since Evergrande last played a match in which they were so thoroughly stymied.
Final score: 2-0 for SIPG. It was the fourth time in three years SIPG has knocked Evergrande out of a competition: in 2017, the ACL and the FA Cup, in 2018, head-to-head for first place in the league, and in 2019, the Cup again.
Wuhan: the less said the better
Pereira threw out one of his weirdest line-ups of the year in Wuhan for the conclusion of this heated series of matches: Oscar, Hulk, Arnautovic, Chen Binbin and Lyu Wenjun, all attacking players, Lin Chuangyi, the inexperienced midfielder, and four defenders. Two of SIPG’s defensive midfielders, Cai Huikang (suspended) and Yang Shiyuan (injured) were unavailable.
Wuhan had no trouble exploiting this configuration and got a cheap goal four minutes in due to defensive confusion and a brain freeze by Yan Junling. Arnautovic equalized with a lunging deflection at the 23’ mark, and that was it for the scoring.
Where things stand
While SIPG was drawing their two matches in the CSL, Guo’an was imploding, losing twice, and Guangzhou won twice, the second time against a Beijing Renhe squad that very suspiciously fielded no foreigners.
That leaves Evergrande four points up on both SIPG and Guo’an, but there is opportunity afoot. Evergrande’s next two are Shandong and Guo’an on the road while SIPG hosts hapless Tianhai and travels to historic Yuexiushan Stadium to play Fuli, who have lost three of their last four and have the worst defense in the league by a considerable margin.
In the Cup, SIPG is sitting pretty. They drew Shandong at home in the semi-finals, while Dalian hosts Shenhua. SIPG has to be considered the heavy favorite to take home silverware.
Odds and ends
The CSL schedule has been altered. SIPG’s road match against Guangzhou R&F has been shifted to Friday, Aug. 9 and the home date against Tianjin TEDA is now Wednesday, Aug. 14. The CSL then halts until mid-September.
But not SIPG.
The FA Cup semi-final against Shandong Luneng is set for Tuesday, Aug. 20, 19:30, at Shanghai Stadium. Who is available for this match may be influenced by national team obligations. Both SIPG and Shandong have goalkeepers on the national squad.
The Asian Champion’s League ends it’s summer break Tuesday, Aug. 27 at Shanghai Stadium at 19:30, when Urawa Red Diamonds come to town for the first leg of the quarterfinal.
Lyu Wenjen, sporting a black cast on his right arm, is finally back. He played against both Guangzhou in the Cup and Wuhan. The U23 rule may limit his playing time, though, as Pereira likes to choose between Chen Binbin and Zhang Wei for that slot. When he picks Chen, Lyu likely sits.
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