Matt Sullivan reports from the north-east footballing hotbed of Shenyang city
Clash of the former CSL big guns
Saturday 14th brought the eagerly anticipated “you used to be a big club” derby, as Liaoning FC welcomed the visit of Greentown. Some qualification for that last sentence is obviously required; the eager anticipation came courtesy of the vagaries of the CFA fixture computer, which led to Shenyang having no home games in a month since the Shenzhen game, and is only shared by me and the handful of souls who make the trek out to the Tiexi Theatre of Dreams. A trip with a mixture of ignorance, ennui, or just plain couldn’t-give-a-toss-about-local-football-ness (like schadenfreude, I’m sure the Germans have an apposite word for that) keeping attendances low.
This is despite Liaoning FC being the highest-placed professional football team playing in a city of around 7 million people. However, let’s leave any gripes about the CFA’s contempt for fans and the lack of any development of a fan culture to another time – seeing as our beloved editor already likes to ride that particular hobby horse. What doesn’t need any qualification is that the two teams did indeed used to be big. Greentown, formed in 1998 (sort of) are one of the more venerable teams in this league, and had until recently spent an unbroken 10-season spell in the top flight, reaching the quarter finals of the FA cup three years on the bounce and qualifying for the 2011 Asian Champions League on the back of a 4th place finish in the top flight. Somehow they contrived to be even more pitiful than Liaoning in 2016 when they were relegated alongside Shijiazhuang, and they finished their first season back in League One in 9th. This was five points above the relegation spots, resulting in a summoning of a taxi for K-pop-idol-lookalike coach Hong Myung-bo in May, with scary-bald-bloke Zdravko Zdravkov, the goalkeeping coach with the highest scoring scrabble name in the world taking over as caretaker for the rest of their season. Clearly then, Greentown deserve the epithet “you used to be a big club”.
Last time out and recent form
But, what of Liaoning; pray, on what basis should they be called a former big club? Sit yourself down in front of Wikipedia and be enlightened, friends; quite apart from being founded in 1953 making them one of the oldest clubs in China, how about this; nine league championships, two FA cups, one super cup AND, in 1990, becoming the first ever Chinese winners of the Asian Club Championship (AFC Champions League to you youngsters). Yeah, take that Evergrande, we were first. Granted, the fact that our last league championship was in 1993 makes me sound like a Scouser banging on about it, and despite Newcastle United being more likely to get their hands on any silverware before the league title returns to Liaoning, our “bigness” cannot be questioned.
The last time the two sides met in Shenyang was in September 2016, Liaoning winning 2-0 to leapfrog Greentown in a thrilling relegation 6-pointer. Looking at the league table and form going into the match, after five rounds both teams were in bang-average territory. Greentown were 7th with three wins and two defeats (by Shanghai Shenxin and Zhejiang Yiteng, who apparently don’t “rep” Zhejiang), and Liaoning 9th, with two wins and three defeats, most recently in the controversial Battle of Qingdao.
In the cup, Liaoning negotiated a tricky tie away to Baoding Yingli Rongda, winning 1-0 while Greentown got dumped out by Shaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaanxi Changan in what should strictly be called a giant killing. Coming in to the game, free scoring Greentown boasted the league’s top scorer Dino Ndlovu, with six goals, and had also added Dorde Radic (pronounced Geordie Radish) who was prolific for Qingdao, to their ranks. Goal-shy Liaoning, with only 4 league goals so far, would be looking for James C to take some elixir of youth and get off the mark for the season.
Match review – Liaoning 1 – 2 Zhejiang Greentown
On to the match then; the first half started off well, Zhejiang lining up 442 with Ndlovu and Radic up top, against Liaoning looking more of a 451 with James C up on his own and Liaoning looking to use Lei Yongchi’s pace down the right. Both sides had chances in the opening minutes; Greentown bouncing one off the crossbar from a corner, and a cutback from the left by Ni Yusong falling to U23 Wang Jiao, who sliced his first time volley skywards from 15 yards out.
With 25 minutes gone, Andy Russell instinctively put his hand up to protect his face from a shot, which was powerful enough to put the big lad on his backside. Referee Liang Caiwei gave Greentown a free kick right on the D, which was tapped a couple of feet to the left for Dino Ndlovu to fire home his seventh of the season, making it one nil to the visitors.
Liaoning’s best chance for an equalizer came in the 36th minute, again another cutback from the left this time found James C open right in front of the goal, but his side footed effort went wide right.
Just as we thought we’d be going in behind at half time, Liaoning won a corner on the left, played short around the edge of the box before being played in to the centre, where Andy Russell leapt like a salmon, his majestic goalbound header looping over keeper Zou Dehai and bouncing across the line past the despairing defender scrambling back, as the sun broke through the clouds and the hallelujah chrus could be heard breaking out across Tiexi. One each at half time.
Coach Chen Yang brought on Sang Yifei for the second half to give Liaoning more of an attacking threat. It didn’t work. Ten minutes into the second half and Liaoning failed to deal with a throw in from the left, the ball ended up at the feet of Geordie Radish who prodded it home, for what was to prove the winner. Shortly afterwards Radic got himself booked in the most ridiculous circumstances; on being subbed off he began heading for the tunnel only for referee Liang to indicate he had to leave from the other side of the pitch. Radic continued taking the direct route back to the tunnel only for Liang to pull out a yellow as Radic was leaving the pitch.=
Liaoning continued chasing another equalizer with increasing desperation; Yang Shuai was brought on to allow Assani to join James up front in a 442, and Lei Yongchi Zamora-ed a couple of long range efforts out towards Forest Park. In the 89th minute Liaoning got the ball in the net after a corner, but the goal was ruled out for an offside as the foam square cushions began to rain down on the running track.
Long season ahead for Liaoning
Victory for Greentown puts them firmly up in the leading places with 12 points. For Liaoning however, another defeat at home and it’s starting to look like a long season. Our defence looks better than last season – granted it could hardly look any worse – although I still get terrified any time Big Andy gets the ball at his feet. Our attack though is threadbare, James C playing alone up top is isolated, and found himself run into the ground with around 3 or 4 defenders to cope with.
I don’t know whether it’s age catching him up, or the long-term injury he got last season, or simply the absence of Anthony Ujah to work off, but we either need some new blood up front or for Mr. C to rediscover the scoring touch he had in 2016 (and I really hope he shoves those words down my throat!)
Chen Yang needs to get this sorted out and cut the excuses “we made lots of chances we just couldn’t take them” before we either exit this league in the wrong direction or we send for the Liaoning Messiah Ma Lin. Either way, the clock is ticking for him. And we’re still a big club.