This is your WEF home for all things SIPG. This time, Jeff Beresford-Howe looks at a crushing end to a trophy-less season. (Unless you count the Super Cup, but who does?)
On a warm Saturday night in Canton, the fifth time was the charm for Guangzhou Evergrande.
There hasn’t been much like it anywhere in world football: a top-class team getting punked over and over on its home pitch by its chief rival. In the last three years, Guangzhou’s fans have watched in increasingly silent despair as SIPG swaggered into town and knocked their boys out of the FA Cup (twice), the Chinese Super League race and the Asian Champion’s League.
But they will suffer no more, or at least not at the hands of SIPG. The CFA darlings, with two goals from the miraculously revived Anderson Talisca, knocked off SIPG 2-0. The win left Evergrande in first place, four points clear of SIPG with two matches remaining in the CSL season. Guangzhou still might not win the league — Beijing Guo’an is only two points behind them — but SIPG certainly won’t.
Struggles at center midfield?
The Red Eagles, healthy and able to field a consistent line-up for the first time in 2019, came out of the four-week international break looking like they’d spent it at a donut shop. They were slow to the ball and uninspired on the attack, never once making Guangzhou keeper Liu Dianzuo break a sweat.
It was a wholistically bad job. Everyone struggled to contribute except SIPG keeper Yan Junling, who singlehandedly prevented a 4-0 or 5-0 result with a series of sparkling saves.
Oscar, the SIPG midfielder who is considered the best playmaker in China, had his worst match in three years in SIPG colors, constantly misfiring on passes and disappearing for long stretches.
Guangzhou adopted the now de rigueur in the CSL whack-a-Hulk strategy. It’s 50-50 whether the Brazilian forward will work through it emotionally or let it affect his game. There wasn’t much doubt about it Saturday night. Hulk vanished at about the 15’ mark, rarely to be seen again.
The defensive quartet of Yu Hai, Shi Ke, He Guan and Wang Shenchao was repeatedly exposed. Shi and He, in particular, may not be quite good enough to anchor a top-flight team.
The inconsistent (but hot lately) Li Shenglong started out at center forward, where he was so uninvolved in the action that he probably should have had to buy a ticket. Moved out to the wing in the second half, he never found a way back into the match.
Cai Huikang was the same as he ever was: fat and slow and prone to ill-advised tackles that yielded juicy free kicks.
Marco Arnautovic, who hasn’t impressed manager Vitor Pereira enough to earn a regular starting spot, came on to begin the second half as Pereira desperately searched for some offensive punch. Arnie contributed not one single moment to the SIPG attack, although he did manage to glare daggers at Hulk, Oscar and others for failing to seek him out as he wandered listlessly in the box. And he nearly sparked a brawl towards the end of the match when he tangled with the pesty Zhang Xiuwei.
Talisca is back
Despite all this, Guangzhou, whose mystique and intimidating performances are things of the past in the CSL, didn’t put it away until a very iffy penalty at the end, and to do it, they needed a comeback performance from Talisca.
The tall, stick-figure of a forward tore the league apart in the second half of 2018, but since his return from injury, he’s looked like a lost soul in 2019. Until Saturday night. Talisca had his old energy and pace back, and at the 43’ mark, he sprinted past the criminally inattentive Shi Ke, took a perfect pass from Paulinho, which put him in alone on Yan, and calmly hit the back of the net.
Talisca added the match-clincher right at the end of the match, drawing a penalty when he either (1) was nudged by Oscar in the box or (2) won the 2019 CSL Neymar Award for Simulation. He made the kick, but whichever way you come down on the penalty call, the goal didn’t effect the outcome of the match. SIPG could have played for a week without scoring.
SIPG plays out the string with matches against the two worst teams in the league. They’re in Beijing on Wednesday against relegation-bound Renhe and at Shanghai Stadium on Saturday against Shenzhen, who will likely need points to stay in the CSL.
Besides killing SIPG’s title hopes, the loss to Guangzhou also dropped Shanghai two points behind Beijing Guo’an, and that’s important because the third-place team in the CSL will be forced into a playoff match on January 28 in order to get into the Champion’s League group stage. If SIPG and Guo’an finish level, SIPG will be awarded second place by virtue of their two victories over Guo’an this year.
There is no chance that SIPG will finish worse than third.
What’s next, existentially speaking
Everywhere you look on the SIPG roster, you see uncertainty. Will Pereira be back? He looked awfully glum Saturday night, the team didn’t respond when he pressed them, and he’ll have no shortage of job offers from teams who watched SIPG win the league last year. Hulk was noticeably less effective this year and will be a superannuated (by football standards) 34 next year.
Akhmedov appears likely to go. Lyu Wenjun, after an effective 2018, flatlined as Wu Lei’s replacement in 2019. Yang Shiyuan, the promising midfield replacement for Cai Huikang, will probably spend all or most of 2020 in the trainer’s room.
None of the kids who got opportunities with the U23 rule showed any promise at all. If the rumblings about a salary cap for Chinese players are true, there is probably no player in the league likelier to seek foreign employment than Yan Junling.
And then there’s Arnautovic. He may be the iceberg that sinks SIPG. Arnautovic is due tons of money next year and his salary may prevent SIPG from going after another, more effective attacking foreigner or replacing Akhmedov with a top-flight midfielder.
(To be fair, Arnautovic could also round back into form in 2020; the experience of Talisca notwithstanding, a lot of foreigners take a bit of time to get used to playing in China.)
Odds and ends
Elkeson, sorry, I mean Ai Kesen, didn’t appear in the match, apparently because of his mid-season transfer from SIPG to Guangzhou. It’s reasonable to suggest that SIPG would have won the league without that move, likely forced by Chinese administrative powers that be.
Speaking of Elkeson, Fuli and Israeli international Eran Zahavi, with 29 goals going into the last two matches of the seaosn, has passed Elkeson’s CSL single-season goals record of 28.
SIPG’s top scorer, Hulk, is 22nd in the CSL in goals.
The CFA’s no-more-corporate-names-for-football-teams policy will see Shanghai SIPG change it’s name to… Shanghai City FC? That’s the story that’s flying around. The club’s original name, Shanghai Dongya (East Asia) is perhaps too reminiscent of the Xu Genbao era?
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