Time for Chinese Super League clubs to get serious or it is going to be a long season despite what you have paid for it
The new season starts on Friday and it is time for teams to show what they are made of on the field and not just what they can spend
Wallsend Boys Club, the small club from the North East of England famous as the birthplace of the likes of Peter Beardsley, Alan Shearer, Michael Carrick and Fraser Forster to name a few, were in Hong Kong last month to expand their footprint around the world.
The club is in the process of a document they are calling ‘The Wallsend Way’, which spells out what the club stands and tries to explain how they have started the careers of over 80 professionals including sevens internationals.
If China and president Xi Jinping are serious about raising the standard and status of the game in the Mainland, they might need to ask their colleagues from the South of the country to start quickly penning “The Guangzhou Way.’
The club in question is the current six-time defending Chinese Super League champions and 2013 and 2015 AFC Champions League winners, Guangzhou Evergrande.
Thanks to significant but well executed investment from the Evergrande Real Estate Group, Guangzhou have won the domestic title for six straight years starting from their first season back in the top-flight having been relegated in 2009 for their part in a match-fixing scandal and have also been crowned champions of Asia two times in the space of four years.
The money from Evergrande allowed Guangzhou to be the first Chinese club to really embrace what is now common place in China as clubs splash the cash on overseas imports or pay increased fees for local talent given the restrictions on foreign players each squad is allowed.
Argentinian Dario Conca, Brazilians Ricardo Goulart, Muriqui, Elkeson, Robinho and Paulinhio, Italians Alessandro Diamanti and Alberto Gilardino, Paraguayan Lucas Barrios and currently Colombian Jackson Martinez have all pulled on what is now the famous red shirt of the ‘Pride of Canton’.
Some like Muriqui, Elkeson and Conca have been roaring successes, some like Diamanti and Martinez, not so much.
But what was highlighted by Shanghai Shenhua’s defeat by Brisbane Roar in the AFC Champions League play-offs last month is that if you don’t play this real life game of fantasy football properly, you are destined for failure.
When Guangzhou won the AFC Champions League in 2013 and 2015, they did it right. That is not to say dominating the domestic scene is not an impressive achievement as well, but until recent seasons the other teams in the Super League were playing for second place before the first ball of a new season was even kicked.
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Top-level coaching helps and they had that first in current China national team coach Marcello Lippi and then in both Fabio Cannavaro and Luiz Felipe Scolari, but they also bought the right players in the right positions with the right attitude.
Guangzhou won their first AFC Champions League title, and China’s first since Liaoning in 1990, largely thanks to the goals from South American attacking trio Muriqui, Conca and Elkeson, but they also had bought the top Chinese players and added some experience in defence with Korean Kim Young-gwon.
Captain Zheng Zhi played an influential role in linking the mainly Chinese defence and midfield with the South American trio up front, so much so he was named 2013 AFC Player of the Year. They were a team and purred under the watchful eye of World Cup-winning coach Lippi as they brushed aside everyone before them before edging out South Korea’s FC Seoul in the final.
Fast forward two years and Lippi had left, and it was first Cannavaro and then Scolari who molded Guangzhou into Asia’s best.
Guangzhou didn’t demolish teams as the 2013 version did, but were arguably a better all round team with the talent spread more evenly throughout with former Tottenham Hotspur man Paulinhio now installed in midfield.
This time it was a 1-0 win on aggregate which secured the victory over Al Ahli of the United Arab Emirates in the final, compared to the 3-3 draw and away goals success of two years earlier against FC Seoul.
But that only underlined the point that the 2015 Guangzhou were more evenly balanced as a unit and did what they had to do effectively and efficiently.
Shanghai SIPG may have beaten Australia’s Western Sydney Wanderers 5-1 in the AFC Champions League this week, and while they look the more capable side than their crosstown rivals Shanghai Shenhua, it is only just March.
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And Shanghai Shenhua, if their exit at the hand of a Brisbane side thumped 6-0 by South Korea’s Ulsan Hyundai this week is anything to go by, are in for a long and tough season.
Gus Poyet’s side deemed far too reliant on high-profile signing Carlos Tevez against then what seemed to be a well-organised and disciplined Brisbane side.
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Games can’t simply be won with the exchange of huge sums of money and by the signing of obscene salary cheques, especially when Shanghai Shenhua seem to have put too much money and faith in Tevez and forgot that this is a team game.
You need to work for it and you need to be organised, and Shanghai Shenhua didn’t and weren’t against Brisbane.
Tevez was seen far too often dropping into midfield in an attempt to influence play, while Shanghai Shenhua’s defence simply was not up to the task, with Poyet’s defenders simply not in the same class as the likes of Guangzhou’s Zhang Linpeng, Feng Xiaoting and the now departed Kim.
All that should improve over the coming weeks and months with time spent on the training pitch and during games, but you need the best ingredients to make the best end product, and on paper it seems like Shanghai Shenhua have been too concerned with grabbing the headlines the Tevez signing attracted rather than building a team capable of challenging on the field not just in print or on social media.
Success is not guaranteed, but to stand a chance to either qualify automatically for the 2018 AFC Champions League or at least avoid another play-off defeat, Shanghai Shenhua should encourage Guangzhou to start writing soon or Tevez will get tired and bored regardless of what his bank balance says.