Shanghai S.I.P.G. defeats Chiangrai United 1-0 in playoffs

At around 9:30 p.m. on Tuesday, Jan. 30 in Shanghai, Ali Hasan Ebrahim, the referee from Bahrain, blew the final whistle for the game between Shanghai SIPG F.C. and Chiangrai United F.C., the final round of Asian Football Confederation Champions League in the East Asia zone had concluded in a way that made Southeast Asian clubs disillusioned about the state of their power in the prestigious continental championship.The final round of the qualification campaign in East Asia started in Tianjin, China, where it saw Tianjin Quanjian F.C. beat Ceres-Negros F.C. with a scoreline of 2-0. Tianjin Quanjian, a debutant of the competition who, with World Cup winner Fabio Cannavaro at the helm last season, surprised many and finished third in the Chinese Super League. They resemble one of the rising powers with huge financial resources and political capital of its owner Shu Yuhui. Quanjian was the largely dominating team in the game, with Anthony Modeste, who scored the third goal in Bundesliga before making a loan move to his current team, delivering the two decisive blows to the Philippines outfit. The other two foreigners contributed to the goals as well. The first goal was assisted by Wang Yongpo’s corner, one that was the result of Axel Witsel’s saved shot. Alexandre Pato threaded a defense-splitting pass to Modeste, whose goal sent Ceres-Negros’ continental campaign to the second tier of the AFC Cup. In the other game that started almost at the same time in Suwon, South Korea, the home team Suwon Samsung Bluewings thrashed FLC Thanh Hóa F.C., which switched managers in spite of finishing at the highest position in the domestic league and beating Eastern Sports Club in Hong Kong during the previous round with a whopping 5-1 victory. This is the first official game Suwon played since the team acquired forward Dejan Damjanovic, arguably the most controversial transfer in club history. Damjanovic is the second-highest goal scorer in Korean League history, just behind Korean legend Lee Dong-Gook. Damjanovic arrived from FC Seoul, Suwon’s bitter rival, where he had played for eight years in two different stints. By playing a key role — threading dangerous passes, striking goals and distracting defenders from the overlapping teammates — in the expected victory on Tuesday night in Korea, Damjanovic did not disappoint the “Frente Tricolour,” the ardent Suwon supporters who occupied the home stands of the Suwon World Cup Stadium. Broadly, the first half of the match was fairly balanced, with spells of attacking pressure applied from both teams. As it neared the halftime whistle, however, Suwon intensified its stream of forward-seeking passing, with a focus on the combination of Damjanovic, Lim Sang-hyub and Waguininho, who also scored the moral-defeating goal just before the 45-minute mark. The second half was almost too easy for Suwon, as manager Seo Jung-won formulated an offensive tactic involving rigid triangle passing groups and two fluid forwards laying off key passes for overlapping attackers. The Tricolours added another three goals in 12 minutes, essentially relegating Thanh Hóa to the AFC Cup. Although Thanh Hóa’s individually impressive Senegalese Pape Omar Faye scored the consolation after Damjanovic’s goal without much help from his teammates, his goal came too little, too late. The epilogue of the series was in soccer-crazed Shanghai, where SIPG having installed a new manager, got through to the group stage with a nervous one-goal lead overt Chiangrai United F.C., although the process of the match, at least in the second half, suggested otherwise. In the first half, two delicate long-range passes from the midfield by Phitiwat Sukjitthammakul, along with the intelligent run from his teammates, rendered several SIPG defenders out of position. Chiangrai, however, did not score because captain Gilberto Macena failed to place the shot on target twice with no marking near him. SIPG’s first half echoed the lackluster and unexpectedly consistent underperformance during the fervent two-legged tie against city rival Shanghai Greenland Shenhua F.C. in the Chinese F.A. Cup last year, which also cost SIPG the chance to automatically qualify for the continental club championship. An attacking opportunity for Chiangrai presented itself from a corner of the Shanghai Red Eagles — a ball that seemingly rolled on its own all the way to the other half of the pitch — but this opportunity was not capitalized on, again, by Macena and the ball was cleared by Yan Junling, the Red Eagles’ goaltender. After that scare, order was restored and what followed was largely tame exchanges between the two teams in the ensuing minutes of the first half. In the beginning of the second half, Yu Hai’s header was the decisive goal, but several signs, including incoherence of passing exchanges and lack of constructive movements, in the opposing half by Chiangrai seemed to gradually kill its chance to advance to the group stage. Yan Junling, with the exception of a few other largely innocuous long-range efforts from the opposition, did not have too much to worry about after the deciding goal. It is hugely exciting to see up-and-coming footballers from the immensely passionate but constantly underachieving region, but soccer administrators of ASEAN nations need to assess the underlying causes of failure and apply solutions accordingly. With only one club represented in the group stage from the ACL, there was a realization that the league could not be turned into a continental powerhouse overnight. Gradual solid progress is the way to go and it cannot be stressed enough as a fundamental policy.