McGuin­ness break­ing ground in Bei­jing

The Irish Times - Sports Weekend - - FRONT PAGE - Clif­ford Coo­nan:

Fabio Capello caused quite a stir when he ar­rived at Nan­jing Air­port in June. You just don’t see very many sep­tu­a­ge­nar­i­ans wear­ing jeans with match­ing blue glasses in China, but this was just an­other world-fa­mous man­ager tak­ing over a lead­ing Chi­nese Su­per League team.

There are oth­ers who have just fin­ished the 2017 sea­son: Luiz Felipe Sco­lari (right), An­dré Vil­las-Boas, Manuel Pel­le­grini and Felix Ma­gath. We can haz­ard a good guess what the Chi­nese equiv­a­lent of Sam Al­lardyce makes of this for­eign in­flux, but their col­lec­tive fortunes in China con­tain plenty that is sweet and sour.

Sco­lari will be the hap­pi­est. The Brazil­ian won the ti­tle with Guangzhou Ever­grande Taobao, his third since ar­riv­ing in 2015 and the club’s sev­enth in a row. Com­pared with the team of Mar­cello Lippi, his pre­de­ces­sor, Big Phil’s Guangzhou have be­come more func­tional, but the lack of a sus­tained chal­lenge from any­one else meant the man­ager’s big­gest prob­lem was the sum­mer de­par­ture of Paulinho to Barcelona.

The Brazil­ian ar­rived in the city for­merly known as Can­ton from Spurs two year ago and soon be­came the best and most con­sis­tent per­former in China and prob­a­bly Asia. Los­ing him to Barcelona may have been a pow­er­ful ri­poste to the charge China was a semi-re­tire­ment home for the greedy, but it left a hole in mid­field.

With Paulinho per­haps the Reds would not have lost the first leg of their Asian Cham­pi­ons League quar­ter-fi­nal 4-0 at the home of their fierce ri­vals Shang­hai SIPG, the low point of the sea­son. All the stops were pulled out for the re­turn match. Three ac­ci­dents held up the Shang­hai team bus on the way to the game. Even stranger, ac­cord­ing to Vil­las-Boas, the vis­i­tors’ man­ager, they in­volved the same ve­hi­cle. He fumed: “This club can cause car ac­ci­dents.”

And al­most ma­jor up­sets, too: Guangzhou came back to win the sec­ond leg 4-0 af­ter nor­mal time, al­though Shang­hai squeezed through on penal­ties. Sco­lari will not be there next sea­son – Fabio Can­navaro left Tian­jin Quan­jian this week to take Big Phil’s place at Guangzhou, af­ter his brief first spell at the club, in 2014-5 – and it re­mains to be seen whether Vil­las-Boas stays for a sec­ond sea­son.

Un­der the Por­tuguese man­ager Shang­hai have im­proved – not by much. In 2016 Shang­hai dis­pensed with Sven-Göran Eriks­son af­ter fin­ish­ing third in the league and the last eight in Asia. This time Vil­las-Boas de­liv­ered sec­ond and the last four. This was af­ter sign­ing Os­car from Chelsea for about ¤60 mil­lion and hav­ing a fit Hulk. The lat­ter was the more im­pres­sive per­former, but Shang­hai may have done bet­ter had Os­car not been banned for eight games in the mid­dle of the sea­son. It was caused by a fairly in­nocu­ous kick­ing of the ball at an op­po­nent, more se­ri­ous for the huge brawl it sparked than the act it­self. Vil­las-Boas, Hulk and Wu Lei, the first Chi­nese player to hit 20 league goals for 11 years, also had two-game bans for wear­ing T-shirts with mes­sages of sup­port for their team-mate.

Vil­las-Boas, not shy of voic­ing his opin­ions about Chi­nese foot­ball, ref­er­ees and the fed­er­a­tion, has been hit by fur­ther bans, which has the me­dia ques­tion­ing whether he was suf­fi­ciently fo­cused on the team. The sea­son hinges on the up­com­ing Chi­nese FA Cup fi­nal with their ri­vals Shang­hai Green­land Shen­hua and the newly svelte Car­los Tevez.

The high­light of the Ar­gen­tinian’s trou­bled cam­paign was a 4-0 de­feat of Jiangsu Sun­ing on the open­ing day. Jiangsu, last sea­son’s run­ners-up, never re­cov­ered – and in June called Capello. The for­mer Eng­land man­ager is not used to rel­e­ga­tion bat­tles and did not start well. No goals in his first three games saw the Nan­jing team hit rock bot­tom, but there was enough at­tack­ing tal­ent with the Brazil­ian duo of Alex Teix­eira and Ramires, Roger Martínez of Colom­bia and the in­spired mid­sea­son sign­ing of Ben­jamin Moukandjo, the Cameroon in­ter­na­tional, to get the team out of the trou­ble. The fail­ing of oth­ers also made it eas­ier.

Capello has one more year on his con­tract, and only then can his time be prop­erly judged. Should the Ital­ian stay his role model should be Ma­gath. A year be­fore Capello ar­rived the Ger­man took over Shan­dong Luneng Tais­han af­ter their pre­vi­ous coach, Mano Menezes, had plunged the team into a rel­e­ga­tion bat­tle.

There were no re­ports of cheese, tofu or rice be­ing used to heal play­ers, al­though there was some ini­tial dis­quiet about his tor­tur­ous train­ing meth­ods. The Brazil­ian striker Diego Tardelli tweeted, “Coach Crazy !! Foot­ball has changed, we are in the XXI cen­tury,” but the Chi­nese play­ers, en­cour­aged by the club hi­er­ar­chy, seemed to re­spond to the Ger­man’s dis­ci­plinary ap­proach. With a well-or­gan­ised de­fence and dan­ger­ous at­tack­ers, such as Papiss Cissé and Graziano Pellè, this sea­son went much bet­ter and fea­tured a chal­lenge for a Cham­pi­ons League spot be­fore Shan­dong set­tled for sixth.

On the fi­nal day, Tardelli, still with the team, scored a hat-trick in a 5-4 win over He­bei China For­tune. That de­feat cost Pel­le­grini and He­bei a first ever place in the AFC Cham­pi­ons League. He­bei started and ended the sea­son well, but a mid­sea­son run of one point from seven games did the dam­age de­spite the ex­cel­lent form of the Ar­gentina striker Eze­quiel Lavezzi, who ended up with 20 goals.

The for­mer Ever­ton mid­fielder Li Tie may al­low him­self a small smile of sat­is­fac­tion at that. He took He­bei up in 2015 and had them in fifth past the mid­way point last year when he was re­placed by Pel­le­grini (left). Con­sid­er­ably more ex­pen­sive, the for­mer Real Madrid and Manch­ester City man­ager has taken the team just one place higher. The de­bate about whether all these fa­mous man­agers are worth their salaries will con­tinue, as will the high-pro­file ar­rival at var­i­ous Chi­nese air­ports be­fore the start of the 2018 sea­son.

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