Relegation looms for former Chinese Super League powerhouse Shandong Luneng

Striker Diego Tardelli questions manager Felix Magath’s methods on Twitter as struggling club endures lengthy winless streak

PUBLISHED : Monday, 04 July, 2016, 7:39pm
UPDATED : Monday, 04 July, 2016, 7:39pm

For all the attention that Shanghai SIPG have been getting during their recent struggles, another big name Chinese Super League club has been struggling even more. Fellow AFC Champions League quarter-finalists Shandong Luneng have been in freefall for much of the domestic season and things appear to be going from bad to worse.

This weekend Shandong Luneng hosted Guangzhou Evergrande at the Jinan Olympic Sports Center stadium. Bizarrely, based on recent seasons, top faced bottom and the game went on form with the runaway leaders extending their cushion at the top of the table to seven points thanks to goals from Brazilians Alan and Paulinho.

Shandong remain rock bottom after the loss, three points adrift of Changchun Yatai and four from safety. They have a game in hand but that game is against third-bottom Shijiazhuang Everbright and defeat in the rearranged fixture could end their hopes of survival.

That would be unthinkable for one of the biggest names in Chinese football and arguably one of the biggest names in Asia. Prior to the dominance of Guangzhou Evergrande, Shandong Luneng were the pre-eminent team since the CSL rebranded in 2004. The three-time champions also finished as runners-up twice and were the last team to win the league before Evergrande’s current stranglehold began.

Last season they finished third, guaranteeing their place in the AFC Champions League for the fourth year in a row.

It’s ironic then that a team who have been Champions League mainstays but always gone out in the group stage have seen their best run in the continental competition coincide with their worst domestic season since flirting with relegation under Hank ten Cate in the 2012 season.

This season they are not so much flirting with relegation as stalking it. Sadly, there is no sign of a restraining order in sight. The side is winless in ten in all competitions. Their last victory came against China League One side Meizhou Hakka in the Chinese FA Cup almost two months ago and they last won in the league in April. This winless streak also included the two draws which took them through to the Champions League quarters on away goals.

Ex-Bayern boss Felix Magath takes charge at Chinese Super League heavyweights Shandong Luneng

They are dead bottom and in the midst of a terrible run of form in the CSL, with just two wins and four draws from 15 league games this season. Former coach Mano Menezes, who was only appointed prior to the start of this campaign, resigned at the start of June after 11 of them. The Brazilian left for “personal reasons” despite overseeing the Champions League run.

His replacement Felix Magath has not yet been able to turn the ship around. If anything it has gotten worse for the Jinan side as Magath has experienced his worst ever start as a coach. The team have only gained a single point since the German took over on June 8 and that was against a misfiring Shanghai SIPG side who really should have won the game.

In the last three fixtures Luneng suffered the heartbreak of losing to Chongqing Lifan in the league, going down to a last minute winner after looking to have guaranteed a point, then lost in the Chinese FA Cup to Shanghai Shenhua in midweek before losing to the league leaders this weekend.

In many ways, the slump is bizarre. This is basically the team that finished third last season under Cuca, the Brazilian coach who also oversaw the side’s 2014 Chinese FA Cup win. Cuca was previously in charge of Atletico Mineiro when the Brazilian club won their first ever Copa Libertadores title in 2013, with Shandong Luneng striker Diego Tardelli a key figure.

Tardelli was clearly happy under Cuca and happy enough under his countryman Menezes this season, where he has scored six times in the Champions League. That does not appear to be the case with Magath, under whom morale appears to be as low as the club’s league position.

The talismanic Tardelli has taken to Twitter to voice his dismay at Magath’s methods. The German is a well-known authoritarian who prizes physical training above all else and his forward – in a swiftly deleted tweet – called the manager out for his antiquated methods the day after the Chongqing Lifan loss.

This situation could have been expected. Many South Americans have fallen foul of Magath’s rigid methods in the past and his appointment raised eyebrows given Tardelli’s fellow foreigners are compatriots Gil, Aloisio and Brazilian-Palestinian Jucilei, alongside Argentine Walter Montillo.

Magath dismissed Tardelli’s concerns in a press conference and the forward returned to the fold this weekend after being sidelined since May 29, Menezes’ last game in charge, with injury.

It seems the German needs to quickly get the best out of Tardelli and Gil, the central defender having recently returned from Copa America duty, in order to stop the rot. Although, Magath has told local media that he wants defensive-minded reinforcements and any foreign players would have to come in at the expense of someone already on the roster.

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Fan favourite Tardelli has been linked with a return to Atletico Mineiro, a move that he has distanced himself from on social media where he has also been a vocal supporter of his teammates despite not playing.

Right now hope is hard to come by in Jinan. Their season rests on the AFC Champions League in August where they play an FC Seoul side second in the league behind Jeonbuk (who play SIPG in the other quarter-final). It doesn’t bode well that the Koreans ran out 4-1 winners in Jinan when they met in the group stages.

Top flight survival is vital lest the club be trapped in League One for an extended period. Something needs to change to ensure that and it will be interesting to see who the last man standing is between the striker and the manager. If Shandong Luneng really want a former Fulham manager in charge then Roy Hodgson’s at a loose end.