The two teams who met in eastern China had a firm grip of the playoff places ahead of the match, boasting the maximum of 6 points, each of them having beaten FC Seoul (Shanghai SIPG by 1-0 away and Urawa Red Diamonds by 5-2 at home) and Western Sydney Wanderers (SIPG by 5-1 at home and Reds by 4-0 away). The match got off to a messy start with random chances at both ends before the hosts drew first blood, in a manner befitting of proceedings so far, when an attempted clearing from a free-kick out wide hit Shi Ke straight in the head. The defender kept his composure and steered the ball into the back of the net. In the following attack, Wu Lei had a glaring opportunity to make it 2-0 but Shusaku Nishikawa was equal to the task and parried the low shot brillianty. As the teams started to find their footing, the home side (strenghtened by the fact Uzbek midfielder Odil Akhmedov is an AFC-player and therefore available alongside the Brazilian star-trio in the Champions League) took some form of control of the event. However, it was still not a well played affair and the Japanese visitors were just as threatening in attack as the Chinese hosts. Still, in stoppage time, Elkeson displayed some great skill and placed the ball just outside Nishikawa’s reach from a long way out as the keeper scrambled to get back between the posts after leaving his area to clear the ball on a counter attack.
The Reds made two changes during the break, bringing on Yosuke Kashiwagi and Rafael Silva for Takuia Aoki and Zlatan Ljubijankic, in an attempt to recover. Despite the effort, Hulk seemed to have decided the game six minutes in as he passed three Japanese defenders, two using skill and one using strenght, to get into the box and place the ball neatly in between Nishikawa’s legs to make it 3-0. On the hour, Oscar nearly became the third Brazilian on the scoresheet this evening as he tried to imitate Hulk and thread the ball in between the keepers legs, but Nishikawa had learned his lesson and stopped it from spinning into the net. Less than ten minutes later, it was even closer as Hulk was centimeters away from latching on to Akhmedovs low, hard cross. By now, the Reds desperate hunt for goals left the way wide open for SIPG to break away and, only moments after Hulk’s opportunity, Wu Lei had another chance but was, once again, denied by Nishikawa. In the attack that followed, up the other end, the match changed completely as the Reds were awarded a penalty when Rafael was pulled down in front of an open goal. The Brazilian converted it himself by putting it to the left and out of reach of Yan Junling. The goal brought hope to the visiting side and made them move positions even further up the pitch, it was end-to-end stuff from that on as the Japanese went Gung-ho to try to salvage a point and the Chinese unable to contain themselves when the opportunities arouse to get more goals. In a tangled situation, following a poor action from Yan Junling at a corner kick, Wataru Endo got his toe to the ball to make it 3-2 and the SIPG lead, that seemed insurmountable only 20 minutes earlier, was almost overtaken. The onslaught continued and an equaliser was on the cards, but when Shinzo Koroki got over enthusiastic in chasing a loose ball in midfield, and tackled Fu Huan from behind, a red card followed and the home side could weather the storm to get their third consecutive win of the campaign.
All in all, it was a fair result but the difference, just as in previous games, came down to the huge individual quality of a few SIPG players. Despite being on top of the group, the team is weak at the back and are completely reliant on their big names to save them in the tough matches. It makes them an outsider in the Champions League, as they can beat any side on a good day, but when the West Asian teams are thrown into the mix in the playoffs, the rest of the team need to step up a bit, if they are to stand a chance of making it to the final. The Reds displayed a solid passing game but lacked the necessary edge, they shouldn’t have any trouble staying ahead of the weaker teams in the group but it’suncertain whether they possess the quality to get past the round of 16.
In the other match in the group, between FC Seoul and Western Sydney Wanderers, the Australians, just as their compatriots in Brisbane Roar, finally started scoring and racked up 3 this evening. But, unlike Roar, they managed to get the A-Leagues first win in the Champions League this year, despite the Koreans getting back from 0-3 to 2-3 in the second half. In addition to recovering some sense of Aussie pride, a playoff spot is now within reach for the Wanderers, although SIPG and the Reds both look to good to waste the positions they’re in.