Guangzhou Evergrande may need a new motto as Chinese Super League success dries up under Fabio Cannavaro
The seven-time champions are fifth in the table heading into the weekend and the Italian is facing the axe again
Be The Best Forever. As mottos go it is perhaps the boldest in world football, eschewing the Latin grandness that obfuscates similar messages on English club badges to get straight to the point.
That it is one letter away from the title of an album by professional shouter DJ Khaled – “We The Best Forever” – compounds its brashness.
The downside of such an exclamation on your club crest is when the success dries up and for Guangzhou Evergrande this could be the year where ambition becomes hubris.
The club logo is not a joke – at least not to them. That is the expectation of the seven-time champions of China, the title they have helped themselves to for the last seven seasons, every year since being promoted from the second tier. The club only knows success; its previous incarnation of Guangzhou Pharmaceutical is a lifetime ago.
This season, of which we’re a third into the domestic campaign, is not going as prescribed.
The champions enter the weekend in fifth and are five points behind leaders Shandong Luneng, after they snatched a win over Tianjin Teda in Friday’s game.
The pressure is on just to keep pace and that is not guaranteed with a visit to Beijing Renhe on Sunday afternoon.
The trip is the end of a long week for the club where they came up short of expectations in the AFC Champions League round of 16 on Tuesday and failed to cash in against Hebei China Fortune last weekend.
It wasn’t meant to be this way, not after the second coming of Fabio Cannavaro.
The Italian returned to the club a couple of years after his first stint in Guangzhou, one that ended just six months into his contract.
In the meantime, Cannavaro impressed at Tianjin Quanjian where he took the club up from League One to the Chinese Super League and then delivered Champions League football after their first season in the top flight – beating champions Evergrande to secure it on the final day of the season.
With his replacement at Evergrande Luis Felipe Scolari calling it a day, Cannavaro was duly coaxed back in the winter to retake the hot seat.
So far it has proved too hot, and that their Champions League misery was dealt out by his previous employers – Paulo Sousa's Tianjin side won on away goals – makes you wonder why Cannavaro returned to Evergrande.
The Italian is learning his trade as a manager and Evergrande has its own challenges even among the clearly capricious climate of Chinese football.
Cannavaro was sacked during his first stint with the club top of the table and having qualified for the quarter-finals of the Champions League.
With the mid-season break 90 minutes away, he is nowhere near the previous benchmark for failure and it would be more surprising if he was still in his job when the season resumes in July than if he was shown the door for a second time.
Circumstances have conspired against him this season. Brazilian pair Ricardo Goulart and Alan have missed games, the latter through suspension for a flagrant elbow. Most Chinese teams are not as good when they are missing their foreign players and Evergrande are no exception even if they have the best domestic footballers.
Each of those Chinese footballers is a year older. Zheng Zhi is 37 and will be 38 a month after the season resumes. He is still vital to the team whenever the coaching staff can get him out on the pitch. Many of the other China internationals are getting the wrong side of 30 and without large investment to refresh the squad it’s a problem that is destined to continue until the club’s youth academy bears fruit.
There is a rush for that to happen, though, as the target of playing an all-Chinese team by 2020 looms large.
Maybe that stated goal is why the club failed to adequately replace Paulinho.
That was always going to be a tough task when, however widely-pilloried by followers of the English Premier League you are, you’re still first on the team sheet for Brazil.
That Paulinho has since slotted into the Barcelona team and played a part in their record-breaking La Liga season is testament to the difficulty in replacing him.
Arguably, the club’s previous coaches have overperformed. Marcello Lippi and Scolari are responsible for setting the bar after winning a Champions League crown – Scolari winning his at the end of the season in which he took over from Cannavaro. That is the expectation at the club but is it fair when both are World Cup winning managers?
The other teams in the league have caught up and Evergrande have not reacted.
Instead they have been focused on reacting to transfer rumours and their back room staff “damaging the brand”.
But what is the brand, if not a winning football club? And if that is the case what happens when they inevitably stop winning?
We could be about to find out.