More often than not in sport, the ability to “get across the line” is what makes the difference between a very good runner-up and a champion. By this I mean that most of the time in most sports, there is a healthy an fairly even competition between those at the top which leads to those with the right mindset and experience pipping those that lack this. This not always the case however, as sometimes a competitor like Usain Bolt comes along who is so far ahead of the rest that even a lack of experience can still lead to a world record with an untied shoe lace.
In this respect football is no different, occasionally a team such as the 2009 Barcelona team, which is so far ahead of the rest that getting across the line is not in doubt. However, things are normally closer than this and unfortunately as a Liverpool fan I have plenty of experience what appears to be a lack of getting-over-the-line-ability. Because of this getting-over-the-line-ability which is built on attitude and experience, the hegemonic super powers seem to always find a way and leads to those such as Tottenham or Arsenal (post-invincibles) seemingly perpetually consigned to runner-up whilst at the same time feeling you can never write-off a comparatively weak post-Ferguson Manchester United.
Of course the antithesis of this is what can be put down to bottling, the ability to somehow always find a way to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory no matter how close you are to the victory or how far ahead you are (think back to Kevin Keegan’s Newcastle).
The Chinese Super League (CSL) at this time seems to displaying both these phenomena. For any semi-interested follower of world football, the news that Guangzhou Evergrande are top of the table will not come as a shock. After all they have won each of the previous six leagues and are the best team in Chinese history. But although they are top, they definitely do not look as convincing as in previous years. This is particularly the case considering only a month ago they were seven points clear, but after one win in five they now have a wafer thin lead of one point.
What has happened to this position of great comfort and seeming inevitable stroll to the title is up for debate, but for any of this faltering to matter there has to be another team able to take advantage.
Waiting in the wings for the majority of the season has been the big spending Shanghai SPG, with the help of Hulk and Chinese transfer record holder Oscar, they have had a very eye catching season with what is the best attacking record in the CSL. After a few early slip ups, Shanghai were due to match Guangzhou win for win all the way and pounce on any opportunity they got, however, so far they have passed up three opportunities to snatch top spot. With the most recent occurrence happening this past weekend.
The first opportunity came three weeks ago when Guangzhou lost to a hot and cold Beijing. Shanghai SIPG then lost to a distinctly average Changchun Yatai away, in a surprising 4-2 score line, after going down 3-0 in the opening half hour.
The next opportunity came last week when Shanghai SIPG played host to Guangzhou Evergrande. Obviously, this was not what in snooker would be termed a “gimme”, they were playing the one team above them in the table and a team that knew the significance of the result. Guangzhou Evergrande of course did not roll over and when a win was needed the game finished 2-2 of course keeping both teams in the same relative position.
However, Shanghai did not have to wait long for another chance, on Saturday just past Guangzhou Evergrande were thoroughly outclassed by their cross town rivals Guanzghou R&F and slumped to a 4-2 away defeat. This continued dip in form handed what has been Shanghai’s best opportunity to date. On Sunday they went to Shandong Luneng needing only a draw due to a 10 superior goal difference over Guangzhou.
For nearly seventy minutes things were going to plan for Shganghai, they took the lead on 22 minutes and looked comfortable. Then Shandong got a scrappy equaliser. Although Shanghai were still in a position to go top, the goal rattled them, with a corresponding loss of discipline, from then on Shanghai looked nervous and Shandong were in the ascendancy. With less than five minutes of the ninety remaining Shandong scored from a corner and saw out the remaining time.
It is true that two of these games were against a good calibre of opposition (Guangzhou and Shandong) and two of them were away from home, but going on the form Shanghai have regularly displayed this season it is fair to say one point from these three was a massive disappointment, especially as it turns out two points would have been enough to take them top.
Apart from the decent opposition there have been other mitigating factors, Oscar was suspended for all three games and Hulk, in my opinion the best player in the CSL this season was absent for the defeat to Changchun due to a misguided protest about the Oscar suspension. However, dealing with suspensions/injuries is something all teams have to deal do over the course of a season including the team which comes out on top and so I am reluctant to accept this explains it all.
I think there could be a more fundamental problem which has more to do with mind frame than anything else. This at first might seem strange because their main players and manager (AVB) are all proven Champions so moving to the CSL from a higher quality, more competitive European league should not be nerve inducing. However, if Hulk and Oascar are removed, all of a sudden it terms from a team with a lot of experience of winning to one of little experience. After all the only team that has won the league in China for a long time is Guangzhou. The Chinese players at Shanghai may well be feeling the nerves. Added to this, each time they fail to take advantage the mental block and nerves will only increase.
How they fair going forward is hard to say, I have no doubt that given a few more chances to take the top spot (and I’m sure they will get more) they will take one of them. However, I also think that even if they retake the lead, which they have not had since the second week of the season, they will slip up again. So not only has this bad patch for Guangzhou been a chance to take the lead, it has also been a chance to build up a buffer at the top, they are definitely not displaying the killer instinct so common in Champions, the same killer instinct Guagzhou have shown time and again.