Game of the year in the CSL as Evergrande travelled north, a mere point ahead of Saturday’s opponents, Shanghai SIPG. Guangzhou would have expected to put some ground between themselves and their main contenders during the last few rounds as Hulk and Wu Lei, as well as manager André Villas-Boas, had been suspended because the first two had protested Oscar’s 8-match ban. The favourites had squandered the opportunity by suffering consecutive defeats away to Tianjin Quanjian and Beijing Guoan, leaving the door wide open for SIPG to overtake them at the top, only to see the challengers stumble and fall away against Changchun Yatai. These debacles have made the league all the more interesting, as a draw tonight would mean both Shandong Luneng and Quanjian could move within shouting distance of the top 2. A home-win would also have kept the league surprisingly open, even beyond the fact it would have left Evergrande trailing in the table, for the first time in quite a while.
It was, unsurprisingly, two sides that were more interested in not losing than anything else. Chances had been scarce when both sides brought off their statutory U23-players before 25 minutes played but the match failed to pick up much speed. Although it was not a boring affair, the following 20 minutes brought nothing more of interest and 0-0 was a logical result at the break. The most exciting incident was Elkeson talking his way into the book, and a decent attempt from Paulinho from the following free-kick, in stoppage time.
The teams came out from the break, looking like they had both shifted focus from not losing to winning. After less than six minutes, Alan broke the deadlock when he placed the ball beautifully down low by Yan Junling’s right post to finish off a quick break by the visitors. This opened the match up even more as SIPG didn’t intend to wait around and, another six minutes into the second half, the ball reached Wu Lei, who’d been left very much alone in front of the Evergrande goal. The shot took a deflection off Zhang Linpeng, who threw himself in front of the ball, and left Zeng Cheng stranded. The first 25 minutes of a second half that looked nothing like the first 45 just flew by, as chances suddenly were plenty at both ends. And by then, the visitors were back in front after Yu Hanchao had steered a low cross from Gao Lin (his second assist of the evening) into the top corner. SIPG felt they should have had a free-kick in the build-up but the ref allowed play to continue.
The lead seemed to give Evergrande an extra bit of energy and as the on the clock became ever closer to 90 minutes, they looked destined to get the definitive goal on one of their many counter attacks, as it became harder and harder to for SIPG find a way through. Then, out of nowhere, Hulk set up Wu Lei and the forward tucked away his second goal calmly with just under 5 minutes of regular time to be played. Hulk then came close to winning it for the home side with a fierce free-kick just outside the post in the first minute of stoppage time but the match ended 2-2.
A fair result over 90-minutes and, although Scolari’s men will be kicking themselves for losing two points so late, one that both sides will be satisfied with. In the end, the most important thing for SIPG was not letting Evergrande leave them 4 points behind and, for Evergrande not to let go of the top-spot. A great result for the rest of the CSL-season, a way back into the race for the teams just behind the giants and, most of all, some very entertaining football for neutral and biased fans alike. An added bonus is the expectations this builds ahead of the clash between the two sides in the upcoming quarter-final of the AFC Champions League.