SIPG inches closer to championship with win over Evergrande

As Bastian Dankert, the referee officiating the game between Guangzhou Evergrande and Shanghai SIPG, blows the final whistle at Tianhe Sports Center, some SIPG kneeled on the floor in exuberance and members on the bench ran onto  the field and embraced one another to celebrate the victory.

With the 5-4 win on the night, SIPG only needs one point in the remaining two games to clinch its first title in the Chinese Super League. It can finally become the first team to precede Evergrande on the CSL table since Evergrande was promoted from China League One in 2011.

As admirable and refreshing as the achievement would be for SIPG, the slip underscores the already narrowing gap between Evergrande and the rest of the league.

It should already take heed of the warning signs when, for the second consecutive season, Evergrande was eliminated by a Chinese team in AFC Champions League, the competition that every top Chinese team sees as a

It lost to SIPG after a dramatic comeback in a game that ended in a penalty shootout last year.

It also lost to Tianjin Quanjian, another team backed by a rich owner, on away goals while failing to outscore the opponent at its clamorous home ground.

On Nov. 3, every factor off the field, aside from Ricardo Goulart’s absence, seemed to propel Evergrande to the top of the table.

Evergrande had hoped that the passionate home fans would help make the atmosphere hostile to the away team.

The hierarchy, with the increased prize money close to $2.9 million, added a more tangible incentive for the players to win.

With both teams pressing intensely while in defense, the game started in a blistering pace and offered both space to attack.

SIPG exploited Evergrande’s high line not long after the beginning of the game. Lu Wenjun, after being released by Givanildo Vieira “Hulk” de Sousa’s through-ball, shot right at Zeng Cheng, Evergrande’s goalkeeper. Lu, though, chested in a goal in one of the corners created by his wasted

Evergrande equalized at the 30th minute with a header from Paulinho, who made a slightly baffling return to the team after a successful spell at F.C. Barcelona.

With barely five minutes before the interval, after a few penalty controversies and goals denied by offsides, Zhang Linpeng failed to clear a cross and Cai Huikang drilled home another goal.

SIPG would not celebrate for long, as Evergrande tied the game with Alan Carvalho dubiously interfered with Yu Hanchao’s inswing free-kick.

As the halftime approached, the defending of set pieces and crosses by both teams would almost crumble. Evergrande came from behind and established its first lead of the game with Paulinho’s close range shot after Yan Junling, SIPG’s goalkeeper, saved Feng Xiaoting’s header.

The lead, though, would be Evergrande’s only advantage on the scoreline during the game.

Not even a minute after the restart, Gao Lin laid off a visionary pass from the midfield by Paulinho, and Anderson Talisca tried to slot the ball to the corner, which was saved by Junling, who had already made a few
impressive saves in the first half.

This seemed to be a changing point of the game, as SIPG looked a bit flustered about how to play itself out of Evergrande’s blitz, but Hulk, the SIPG talisman, calmly turned away from two opposition players and placed an accurate pass behind the defensive line for Wu Lei, scored on his first shot of the game.

Cheng had two hands on the ball, but could not prevent the equalizer.

Evergrande, desperate to expand the lead, pushed the backline that was too high for the pace of the back four.

Twenty minutes of back and forth ensued before Zhang Chenglin registered an own goal after a cross — the type of play that Evergrande threatened SIPG throughout the game — placed by Oscar and connected by Wang Shenchao.                                     

The two unanswered goals allowed SIPG to sit back, invite and absorb the pressure from Evergrande, thus creating more space in the already vulnerable defense of the Southern Tigers.

SIPG would get a penalty, after a collision between two compatriots — Hulk and Paulinho, to further dampen the hope of Evergrande to win the game or the title.

Hulk did not disappoint and blasted the ball past Cheng.

In the third minute of the additional time, Carvalho scored another penalty rewarded because of a foul by the substituted He Guan, but it was belatedly futile.

This game was eerily familiar to the opening game of the season at Tianhe, in which Evergrande, too, conceded five goals to its rival from the same city — Guangzhou R&F. Before this season, Evergrande had only conceded five goals in a game once, away to Jiangsu Suning in 2011. It had already doubled that tally this season, both times at home.

Evergrande lost two-legged ties — in the Champions League and the CFA Cup — to SIPG twice last season, but won the league nevertheless. Nov. 3 was much more significant: not only was it the second time SIPG bested Evergrande in the league, but, barring any unusual slip-ups — a term that SIPG was familiar to before this season, the Red Eagles was finally confirmed as the one in the driver’s seat to win the league.

“We made a lot of mistakes on the field and a lot of them during the season, so on the table, it is what it is,” Zheng Zhi, captain of Evergrande, assessed after the game.

“We still need to analyze a lot of weaknesses. Whether it is for the remaining games [of the season] or next season, the goal of this team is always the championship.”

Although it had recruited Talisca and Paulinho during the summer, Evergrande apparently needs more reinforcement in the defense.

The attack did its job, but the backline conceded goals that it wasn’t just a year or two ago.

In Shanghai, Oriental Sports Daily headlined “An Irresistible Force” with Lei, Hulk and Oscar pictured on the front page.

That echoed the change of mentality from the same team that lost to Urawa Red Diamonds in the Champions League semi-final and also to Shanghai Shenhua, a rival to the same town, in the CFA Cup final after beating Evergrande beforehand.

That the picture of 14 trophies won by Evergrande emblazoned  at Tianhe Sports Center did not frighten SIPG’s player is a real testament to the maturity of the team.

November 12, 2018

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Wen Xi Chen

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