SIPG end Guangzhou dominance
SIPG end Guangzhou Evergrande dominance
In a momentous 2018 season, Shanghai SIPG won their first Chinese Super League (CSL) title, foiling Guangzhou Evergrande’s bid for an eighth straight championship and as good as sealing the trophy by winning 5-4 away to the defending champions in early November.
Shanghai were propelled to the championship by the goals of Wu Lei, who formed a potent attacking unit along with Brazilian striker Hulk and ex-Chelsea midfielder Oscar, who was ably partnered by strongrunning Uzbekistan international Odil Ahmedov.
Shanghai SIPG started the year as they meant to go on, demolishing Dalian Yifang 8-0 on the first day of the season. Other key results included a hardfought 1-0 victory at Beijing Guoan and another victory over Guangzhou Evergrande, this time at home. SIPG also completed a clean sweep in the Shanghai derby against bitter rivals Shenhua, winning 2-0 both home and away.
Wu Lei’s leading role in their title win was a rare success story for Chinese football, with the Nanjingborn striker featuring for the club in every season of its existence since its foundation in 2005 as Shanghai East Asia.
Originally established as a team to represent the academy of legendary Chinese coach Xu Genbao, the club worked its way up from the third tier and was only promoted to the CSL in 2013. The following year, Xu sold the club to local shipping conglomerate SIPG, who changed the name of the team and spent big on the likes of Hulk and Oscar in an effort to wrestle the CSL title from all-conquering Guangzhou Evergrande.
Stability in the dugout was key to SIPG’s success, with former Porto and Munich 1860 boss Vitor Pereira a steadying influence since taking over the reigns in the close season from fellow Portuguese coach Andre Villas-Boas. Last season, a series of well-publicised spats between Villas-Boas and the Chinese football authorities over disciplinary matters, including an eightmatch ban for Oscar, proved something of a distraction and contributed to the club ending the season empty-handed.
Exiting the AFC Champions League at the round-of-16 phase to the J-League’s Kashima Antlers proved to be a blessing in disguise for Pereira as it allowed SIPG to focus on domestic issues. And the club’s roots as an academy side also paid off in the shape of superior domestic talent. In addition to Wu Lei, goalkeeper Yan Junling, defender Wang Shenchao, plus midfielders Cai Huikang and Lu Wenjun made up the spine of the side. All have been capped by China, are at the peak of their careers and have been with the club since youth level.
Unlike SIPG, Guangzhou Evergrande’s domestic talent has been acquired largely
from other teams through financial muscle rather than developing it themselves. Additionally, their side is ageing – that their captain is 38-year-old Zheng Zhi tells its own story. Back in his second spell as coach, Fabio Cannavaro will face a big test next season in trying to rejuvenate one of the most successful club sides China has ever produced.
Elsewhere, matters off the pitch once again tarnished proceedings as the Chinese FA left clubs and players aghast with a series of draconian punishments for relatively minor infractions – such as the one-match ban handed to Shandong Luneng striker Diego Tardelli for scratching his face as he stood for the Chinese national anthem before a game against Shanghai SIPG in October.
Such incidents are widely considered by the Chinese football media to have undermined the integrity of the league, along with the decision to call up 55 under-25 players for a military-syle training camp in October just as the clubs were about to play vital late-season CSL matches.
External factors were responsible for further misfortune as Shanghai SIPG were denied a proper title party. Local police limited attendance at their final home game of the campaign to season-ticket holders only for “safety concerns”, so just 20,000 fans filled the 60,000-capacity Shanghai Stadium. It was commonly believed that the fact president Xi Jinping was in the city at the same time for an international trade fair was the real reason behind the notoriously risk-averse security authorities’ decision.
There was more positive news, however, as the CFA confirmed that a plan to field a national-development team in the CSL next season had been shelved.
And the season finished on a high for Beijing Guoan, who clinched their first trophy for nearly a decade, winning a two-legged CFA Cup Final against Shandong Luneng on away goals.
Historic...Shanghai SIPG celebrate a first CSL title
Winner...Beijing Guoan’s Yu Dabao beats Diego Tardelli of Shandong Luneng in the Cup Final