This is your WEF home for all things Shanghai SIPG. This week, Jeff Beresford-Howe looks at a weak effort in Tokyo, the end to SIPG’s continental dreaming, and an uncertain future.
And so it goes: on a Tuesday night in suburban Tokyo, SIPG’s fractured season limped towards the finish line. With a 1-1 draw, the #15 team in Japan, Urawa Red Diamonds, knocked SIPG out of the Champion’s League quarterfinal and left the Red Eagles with nothing to look forward to for the rest of the year bar intermittent and likely meaningless matches in the CSL.
On display in Japan was an A-to-Z encyclopedia of everything that has made this year so frustrating for SIPG.
Injuries, of course. Akhmedov didn’t make the trip to Japan and the cursed Yang Shiyuan came out early with what was announced as a sprain but looked much worse.
There were jaw-dropping missed chances: wide-open headers by Arnautovic and Yu Hai that would have changed the match. There was hideous defensive work. Urawa’s Koroki Shinzo, the only player on the Japanese side that has any goal-scoring ability, was allowed to run free all night and scored Urawa’s only goal.
There was the unusual line-up. With the injuries and without Hulk, suspended as a yellow card outlaw for getting two yellows in three matches, manager Vitor Pereira had to put an untested combination out on the field, something SIPG has been forced to do in virtually every match they’ve played this year.
Hulk’s absence meant there was no playmaking help for Oscar, which forced Oscar to drop deep and work just to gain the last third. Arnautovic, as has been true since he joined the squad in mid-season, contributed virtually nothing to attacking build-ups.
There was the concession of an early goal, forcing SIPG to play uphill most of the night.
Lü Wenjun’s flailing return from injury continued. He provided nothing for Arnautovic and Oscar to work with. Li Shenglong, who has been valuable off the bench, failed to impress yet again when given an opportunity to start.
There was the all-too-familiar panicked flurry at the end, brainless, long speculative passes easily brushed away by Urawa.
The ludicrous away goals rule was the technical issue that knocked SIPG out of the ACL, after a 2-2 draw earlier in Shanghai, but make no mistake: Urawa thoroughly outplayed SIPG and was unlucky not to win outright. They hit the woodwork about a minute after SIPG’s goal, and lost a huge chance in the first half when a blown offside call halted a Koroki breakaway.
Storm clouds on the horizon
This may have been one of the most consequential matches in team history. The ACL was SIPG’s last hope to salvage a difficult season after losing at home in the Cup and staggering through the second half of the CSL season.
A reckoning is afoot. Oscar is reputedly drawing interest from European sides. Pereira has had a difficult second year as manager and may not have earned or want a third. Hulk will turn 34 next year. Arnautovic isn’t fitting in. Yu Hai may be past his expiration date. Cai Huikang may finally have eaten himself out of the line-up. Akhmedov may not be offensive-minded enough for next year’s squad. Shi Ke and He Guan may simply not be good enough to anchor a championship-winning defense. Yan Junling has lost his confidence between the posts.
And the kids are not alright. SIPG got no contributions from young players in Tokyo, and none in general in ’19. Chen Binbin and Hu Jinghang have demonstrated that they are never going to be quality attackers. Wei Zhen was a backline placeholder at best. There were eight others kids on the roster who combined to start two CSL matches.
SIPG management is going to have to decide whether they want to keep the band together for one more shot or start over and dwell mid-table with the Wuhans and Chongqings of the world for a year or two.
The first component they’ll have to make a call on is the manager’s slot. The team has looked uninspired and ragged much of the season. On the other hand, it’s hard to imagine any manager could have done much better than Pereira fashioning a coherent squad out of the maelstrom of injuries, suspensions and rules changes that SIPG has had to deal with this year.
For SIPG fans, the goal in Japan was the lone ray of sunshine: a perfect cross from Yu Hai and a confidant volley from Wang Shenchao into the back of the net.
After losing to Shandong on CSL matchday twenty-four, blowing a chance to close the gap between Evergrande and SIPG to three points (Evergrande lost on the same day in Nanjing), SIPG finds itself in third place, six points out with six matches to go.
They also have one win – one win – in their last eight matches in all competitions.
Henan comes to Shanghai Sunday night at 19:35 for matchday 25 in the CSL and then SIPG takes a break until an October 19 date with Beijing at Gongti.
Henan, a perpetual relegation candidate, has an unusually relaxed route to the end of the season, having won three of their last five matches. They sit in ninth place with thirty points, free from worry.
If SIPG finishes second in the CSL, they’ll go directly into next year’s ACL group stage. If they finish third, they’ll have to play at Shanghai Stadium on January 28, 2020 in a play-in game. The last two times that happened, SIPG faced and beat a Thai squad.
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