AFC Champions League Group Stage, final round

The ACL-groups are into their final round and there are still a few spots up for grabs in the in the eastern division playoffs, and all four group winners have yet to be definitively decided. Here’s the group-by-group breakdown of what is still to play for:

Group E:
Jeonbuk Hyundai and Tianjin Quanjian have already secured their places in the round of 16 so it’s down to who comes out ahead out of the two. A draw for Jeonbuk at home to Kitchee, who brought home their second consecutive league title back in Hong Kong just the other day but are bottom of the group in the ACL, would mean Quanjian need to win by at least 7 at home to Kashiwa Reysol to have any chance of stealing the top spot. Hence, everything points to the Koreans remaining in front of the Chinese tomorrow evening.

Group F:
Ulsan Hyundai and Melbourne Victory are, in theory, fighting to join Shanghai SIPG in the next round. However, Ulsan only need a single point away to Kawasaki Frontale to keep Victory at bay and, should they fail to do so, the Australians have 10 goals to make up for in relation to the Koreans. As SIPG travel to Melbourne tomorrow knowing a loss puts them under threat of falling behind Ulsan, the chances of an Aussie scoring-orgy are slim to none.

Group G:
The only group where no side is yet sure of progressing, Guangzhou Evergrande are in front but if the they were to lose at home to Cerezo Osaka tonight, the visitors would claim the top sport and the Cantonese would be in a goal-difference affair with Buriram United for second place, assuming the Thai side defeats Jeju United away. If Jeju wins, Evergrande and Cerezo are through no matter what. However, Cerezo have travelled to China without several first team regulars and a draw is not enough for them to survive the group if Buriram comes out on top in Korea.

Group H:
The only group where all sides still have the chance of progressing. Kashima Antlers are through and only need a draw at home to Suwon Bluewings to win the group. Suwon, on the other hand, need a win to be sure of avoiding elimination if there is a winner in tonight’s encounter in Australia between Sydney FC and Shanghai Shenhua. A loss would put the Koreans at risk of being surpassed by either of the challengers, and a draw would still keep Sydney’s hopes alive.

It looks like tonight may well be a nail-biter, while tomorrow evening is more about deciding the order of the first two, rather than who they’ll be.

A rare chance to see some CSL football again

About 30 minutes into Tianjin Quanjian – Guangzhou Evergrande I actually found what appeared to be a working stream. This meant I’d missed the penalty in the fifteenth minute that Ricardo Goulart, in turn, missed himself by firing over the bar. I knew that I could lose access at any time as it was far from an official source. Last year there was a proper European payment service that was reliable although it didn’t broadcast all matches but for the other ones, at least some betting sites produced alternative viewing options. This season, the real way to access the CSL outside of China seems to be through Sky Sports, it seems that would, however, require moving to the U.K. and getting a full TV-package. A wonderful example of the difference between the CFA saying it wants Chinese football to grow and it actually taking action to make it happen.

The fifteen minutes of the first half that I got to see wasn’t really much to write about so I won’t.

The second half started out with a bit more intensity, the visitors were probing to find openings and Alan was very mobile up front. That would only last until the 50-minute mark as said Alan got sent off after being easily provoked by Liu Yiming and throwing an elbow to the centre-backs face, leaving Shi Zhenlu little choice but to present the red card. But, only 5 minutes later, Gao Lin improved on his not too impressive goal scoring record of 2018 as he hit a well-placed volley home from inside the box following a corner. A crucial goal considering the main challengers to strip the ruling champions of their crown, Shanghai SIPG, were up at halftime against Chongqing Lifan.
Now Quanjian were forced to move their positions forward and they had a couple of good efforts to level the match within minutes of the goal. This also meant becoming very open at the back and with all the attacking quality of Evergrande, Alan or no Alan, it left the chasing hosts more than a little vulnerable. A free-kick from far out on the right-hand side passed by everyone and nearly doubled the lead with 65 minutes played but the ball bounced back into play off the post.
For the remainder of the evening, Quanjian kept pushing forward, and not to say they didn’t create anything, but Anthony Modeste had a pretty disappointing night up front and Alexandre Pato was sorely missed. Instead, it was Evergrande who had the bulk of real chances. With 3 minutes left of the 90, Nemanja Gudelj could’ve definitely put the affair to rest but Paulinho’s replacement failed to bring the ball down with his chest as he was in on goal and the ball rolled all the way down to the grasp of Zhang Lu. It didn’t matter in the end as Evergrande held on for a hard fought win to keep them within 3 points of SIPG at the top. Most likely at third place as Shandong Luneng only needs one point at home to the biggest of the season so far, Guizhou Hengfeng Zhicheng, to overtake the champions again.

Looking back and ahead to tomorrow’s CSL 2018 opening round

A very exiting year of introduction to the Chinese Super League

A true rollercoaster of a year that gave me the greatest (the birth of my daughter), as well as the most horrible (the loss of someone very close to me) experiences of my life has come to and end and although these events, in combination with the workload of university, has left far too little time for creating quality content for this blog during the last nine months, I still wanted to take a look in the rearview mirror and ponder my first year of following the Chinese Super League as I ring in the 2018 Year of the Dog ahead of tomorrow’s start of the season (disregarding Evergrande’s 4-1 thrashing of Shenhua in the Super Cup, as all matches of that format anywhere around the globe are simply glorified friendlies). The CSL has certainly been a positive addition to my football viewing spectra. Not the easiest league to wrap your head around, for example the untimely and often unclear changes of rules and regulations are confusing for the fans, and must make even short-term planning nearly impossible for the clubs, but the style of play is generally highly entertaining and the matches are often as unpredictable as the future structure of the league itself. The CFA “Tax” on big foreign player purchases has decisively slowed down spending and the recent specifications of its application efficiently stopped any attempt to maneuver around it.

The seventh consecutive league title for Guangzhou Evergrande may have been predictable, but the road leading up to it was anything but straight. After a slow start, Evergrande got back on top but then squandered numerous opportunities to put distance between themselves and Shanghai SIPG. The challengers were, however, hell bent on letting the reigning champions remain just that and the Cantonese giants could jog the title home with two rounds remaining.

I started out knowing little about the CSL, apart from the high-profile players brought in the last few years. Hulk’s transfer from Zenit S:t Petersburg to SIPG had me raising my eyebrows as I held him as one of the top players in all of Europe and, since Paulinho made his surprise move from Evergrande to FC Barcelona in august, he has reigned supreme in the Middle Kingdom, as far as individual quality goes. Carlos Tévez’s farcical one-year stint went pretty much as I expected when I first read about it, Alexandre Pato was re-born and Eran Zahavi was sensational all year but I prefer to focus on the domestic talent I have come to know. A few players have really caught my eye, such as SIPG´s Wu Lei who more than held his own amidst the Brazilian imports and Gao Lin and Huang Bowen has put in some solid performances for Evergrande but it’s their teammate Yu Hanchao who has become my personal favourite Chinese player. The winger is often a joy to watch with great vision and some top drawer end-product. Unfortunately for China´s national side, none of the players mentioned are in the early stages of their careers, bringing us to the U23-player rule announced ahead of last season. Since I evaluated said rule halfway through the season, I won’t dwell on it but simply repeat my conclusion that it has done little, if anything, to further the development of young Chinese players as few players who wouldn’t have played anyway got more than the bare minimum amount of time on the pitch because of it.

In regards to the clubs, Beijing Guoan and Guizhou Hengfeng Zhicheng were the two that surprised me the most in terms of quality. Both sides finished mid-table but If either was to add consistency to their repertoire they could make a serious go at the ACL-spots this year. Guoan especially have looked like they had a lot more to give as they can give any side in the league a real run for their money on a good day and with the very costly (including “tax”) investments in Bakambu and Viera from Villarreal, they should be able to see substantial improvement to last season’s 8th place finish. Guangzhou Evergrande have yet to find a convincing replacement for Paulinho and are now one of a few equal contenders for the top spot that has been theirs to lose for so many years. Shanghai SIPG and Hebei China Fortune are my main challengers and I my money will be on the Shanghainese to clinch the title, mostly because of Hulk. Tianjin Quanjian and Jiangsu Suning both have a fair bit of talent will be the sides fighting Guoan for a possible opening at the 3rd AFC Champions League spot. The imminent takeover by Wanda Group, and the big names brought in late in the transfer window, makes the newly promoted Dalian Yifeng an interesting addition to the top flite, although I have no real basis for making any further estimation of either them, nor the other newcomer, Beijing Rehne.

Kickoff for the first round is tomorrow at 19:35 local time (12:35 CET) and we really hit the ground running with a Guangzhou-derby between Evergrande and R&F. Game on!

URAWA RED DIAMONDS: 2017 ACL CHAMPIONS!

As Urawa Red Diamonds and Al Hilal took to the pitch at Saitama Stadium the home side had won all their home games and the visitors were undefeated throughout the entire tournament so one very impressive run had to come to an end in the very last match of the 2017 AFC Champions League. With the first leg ending in a 1-1 draw the home side didn’t even need a win, but merely a goalless draw, to be crowned champions. But, with neither side in the habit of not scoring, that felt highly unlikely beforehand.

Urawa showed the confidence they have in front of their fantastic home fans and, instead of falling back and looking for opportunities on the break, started out by pressing high and looking for a goal to get in front. Yosuke Kashiwagi was in fine form and the hosts might well have scored an early goal, just as they did in Riyadh, but the finishing came up short. Kazuki Nagasawa had the best chance but his shot in the 8th minute went straight into Abdullah Al-Mayoof’s hands. As if that wasn’t enough, the travelling fans also a couple of nervous minutes as tournament top scorer Omar Khribin stayed down after a challenge in the 13th minute. Al Hilal tried to keep possession, and did see most of the ball, but failed to put it to any use and were quickly frustrated by Urawa’s intensity and saw themselves repeatedly penalised for unnecessary fouls in midfield. It took the visitors 25 minutes to create something as Salem Al-Dawsari found some space just outside the box but fired just over the target. The same man had the next one in a similar position after 41 minutes, this time seeing his shot deflected out for a corner, and Nicolás Milesi put the ball wide of the post after a nice build up only a minute later, but in between that, the Reds had been far more threatening. At the half time whistle, the Japanese side were still ahead on away goals.

The Reds took heed to A Hilals end to the first half but were not discouraged. Instead they moved positions forward and started out in similar fashion to their opening 15 minutes: early recoveries and quick finishing. But, pretty soon the heavy weight of possession, along with a home more and more inclined to defending their slender advantage, allowed Al Hilal to start piling on pressure and the match’s centre of gravity seemed to move ever closer to the Urawa goal. But with Omar Khribin leaving the pitch due to injury just over the 1 hour mark and Carlos Eduardo still out from the injury he picked up in the first leg, the end product just wasn’t there. With just over a quarter of an hour left to play, Kashiwagi was awarded a free-kick just outside the opposition’s penalty and delivered a great cross that ended up forcing Al-Mayoof to make a double save from what was the best chance of the night by far. Then, with 12 minutes left to play, Al-Dawsari picked up his second yellow of the night after putting his stubs into Wataru Endo’s ankle and, with the visitors down to ten men, Urawa seemed to have the match, and continental title all wrapped up. When Rafael Silva broke loose and hammered the ball home via the crossbar so hard you thought it would break with only 2 minutes of regular time left, the mountain to climb grew even higher for Al Hilal. The goal was only academical in the end as Urawa secured their second ACL title but it meant their perfect record at home was intact and that Al Hilal finally suffered defeat in this year’s campaign.

It’s an amazing performance to defeat what is generally considered Asia’s top-side and even more impressive to do so to become continental champions. The Urawa Red Diamonds were hardly expected by anyone to make it very far in the tournament but the support they have at home really carried them all the way. They may be the most inconsistent side to win a title like this, with 8 wins(only 1 away from home), 2 draws and 4 defeats its not what one would expect from a side that goes all the way. No matter what, hat’s off to the champions and they have nothing to apologize for.

It’s hard not to feel for Al Hilal though, to go through all but the most crucial match of the tournament undefeated and lose a final in which they should have been 2 or 3 goals up, rather than level, after the first leg. It’s hard to see any team in Asia who could have coped with losing the quality of Carlos Eduardo as well as Omar Khribin and then being reduced to 10 men in the middle of their push for the goal to turn it all around. They will surely feel they deserved to bring home the trophy this year and prove once and for all they are the best outfit east of Europe.