This past week marked the half way point in the Chinese Super League (CSL) season, with every team having played every other team once and since we are at this significant juncture I think it is only right for a review of the season so far and a preview of what we may expect.
I am glad actually that I waited until after this set (the sixteenth set) of games to write this review as it would have taken a very different shape otherwise.
I think it is only right that we start from the top.
Dedicated and infrequent viewers alike will be unsurprised in the knowledge that Guangzhou Evergrande are sitting top of the pile. After all they are attempting to claim their seventh straight CSL title and to my knowledge have been at the top at this juncture of the season for the past six years.
It’s mostly gone according to the now familiar Guangzhou Evergrande playbook, namely WIN, which saw them get ten victories on the bounce and at one point open up a gap over second place of seven points. With a very significant feeling of déjà vu permeating, the race to be crowned champions for 2017 dare I say it started to become a little boring. However, that was until two weeks ago when Guangzhou Evergrande slipped up against the newly promoted Tianjin Quanjian. Then, yesterday, lost again, which is the first time this season they have failed to pickup one win from two consecutive games, let alone lose two. All this has meant that instead of the second half of the season turning in to an extended lap of honour, it is in fact very much more likely to be an enthralling title race.
This is because Shanghai SIPG, sitting in second, are now only one point behind Guangzhou Evergrande. This is no accident either, because despite Shanghai SIPG not having been top of the league for the first two weeks, they have scored more than any other team (forty, five more than second top scorers Guangzhou Evergrande) and conceded fewer than all but one team. Resulting in them having the best goal difference by far (nine better than Guangzhou Evergrande). They have, I think most would agree been the most exciting team up to this point scoring at least four goals on four occasions being lead by their explosive and powerful talisman Hulk, who has continued to prove too much to handle for CSL defences. In fact, it may be due to Hulk picking up a retrospective two game suspension for wearing a t-shirt in support of his suspended teammate Oscar, that Shanghai SIPG are not currently top of the league. After all, if they had avoided defeat at the weekend they would have regained pole position. As it was they did not manage to fully close the gap, but it is almost incomprehendable that they will finish outside the top two.
Because the next group of teams are a long way down the road. The best of the rest and the remaining teams looking to duke it out for the two remaining Asian Champions League spot are Hebei Fortune, Tianjin Quanjian, Shandong Luneng and Guangzhou R&F. Of these teams, Hebei Fortune look the most likely to finish in the top four. Not only because they currently sit in third, with a four point gap, but since Ezequiel Lavezzi has found his feet they look capable of beating all those below them and less likely to slip up. There season got off to a bad start winning only two of their first six outings, but they seem to have put such poor runs behind them, but it is very unlikely they will bridge the seven point gap to second.
Shandong Luneng and Tianjin Quanjian have had similar seasons, not only due to their equal points tally (of twenty five) but also the fact that their sometimes brilliant play isjust too inconsistent to push for the title. After all Shandong’s strike force of Grazianno Pelle and Papiss Demba Cisse often proves too much for the opposition, as does Pato for Tianjin, but they drop points too easily. Of these currentlyShndong Luneng look more likely to edge the final Asian Champions League place as they have a game in hand.
In sixth is the surprise over performer of the season, Guangzhou R&F. At first they looked like they could be on for a Leicester, sitting top of the league after six games, inspired by their in form free scoring Israeli striker Zahavi (still top with fourteen goals). It is this over reliance on the man up top which has been Guangzhou R&F’s undoing, having only scored ten goals with other players. If another player hits form a push for an Asian Champions League place seems plausible, but otherwise it looks like the early season promise will fail to live up to expectations.
For the next group of teams it is made up of those that will not qualify to play in continental competition next year, but save for monumental collapse will also not go down. In this distinctly average group we have Beijing GuoAn, Chingqing Lifan, the Carlos Tevez owning Shanghai Shenhua, Changchun Yatai, Guizhou Zhicheng and Henan Jianye. With these teams, apart from Shanghai Shenhua which owns the highest paid player in the world (Carlos Tevez) this safe but stranded position is roughly what should realistically be expected even if not appreciated.
These teams lack the cutting edge to do it game after game and also like most teams don’t have a reliable backline to step up when not firing on all cylinders. This perhaps can be best borne out by the fact that only two have a positive goal difference Chongqing with one and Shanghai Shenhua with nine (the majority of Shanghai Shenhua’s surplus coming from an 8-1 victory). Indeed this position of relative comfort can probably be best understood by the fact that even if they find it difficult to beat those above them, they are definitely better than those below.
Now Shanghai Shenhua do look the most likely of launching a surprise second comeback as they still have a game in hand and are four points off Guangzhou R&F but even if they do turn it around, considering their investment the season would still have to be seen as a failure. As for some of the others, particularly Henan Jianye considering the ominous start they made to the season mid table will now seem like a decent position.
Finally the teams that are at risk of going down. These are Tianjin TEDA, Liaoning Whowin, Yanbian Fude and the big shock Jiangsu Suning. These teams have all failed to get going and have not shown much to suggest they are capable of more. Save for Liaoning with nineteen, these teams have all scored fewer goals than games played and at the same time leaked like sieves bringing about double figure goal differences in the negative.
I have not seen much of some of these teams, but I have watched a few Yanbian Fude games and they have been atrocious at times, looking like a club that know’s it’s going down. I can fully understand why they are sitting rock bottom.
The one team of these which definitely has potential to put together a crucial mini run to escape the clutches of relegation in Jiangsu Suning. The team has Alex Teixeira and Ramires playing for them who are decent footballers by anyone’ measure, the also oddly enough had some fine form in the Asian Champions League, but still sit second bottom. In the latest twist tot heir season they have hired Fabio Cappello who is currently without a win, but has gathered two draws. In their situation Big Sam may have been a better choice, but if Jiangsu do go down, it will have caught everyone off guard. Because for the season up until now it feels like Chelsea’s last season under Mourinho, they’re in the relegation zone, but know they are too good to go down.
Obviously there is still a long way to go, but I imagine these four groups of teams will stay the way they are, give or take, for the remainder of the season, because after all the table doesn’t lie. There s still room for a lot of movement inside these four groups as well, which should make for an entertaining run in, not quite as boring and predictable as what I feared from the first half of the season.