We're approaching the half-way point of the league season already and safety from relegation is quickly becoming a real possibility. But with our goal in sight, we have to wary of something nasty lurking around the corner. It's called Guangzhou.
Part One of this series can be found here.
Part Four can be found here.
It’s easy, this manager stuff. The win at Henan, expected as it may have been, was followed by a period where we had what might be called “form”.
The early exchanges saw Seung-Dae test their keeper twice and us force a couple of early corners. Cui Min got our first goal after just 10 mins from one of those corners, rewarding what was a very positive start to the game. A few minutes later it was 2-0, with Jin Bo coming in at the back post to put away Petkovic’s cross. We were in complete control, dominating the game, and not letting Lavezzi even get a sniff at our goal. A third goal arrived in style, a slick passing move ending with Tae-Goon slipping in Seung-Dae to fire past their keeper. 3-0 and game over, as far as I was concerned.
The team seemed to think so, too, and stopped trying in the second half. Hauxia came back into the game and although a comeback was never really on, it made for uncomfortable viewing. Lavezzi managed to get a goal back right at the end. The players didn't like it, but I had to tell them for a wretched second half performance.
Things began to look very bright when Bit-Garam returned from injury and played through a couple of reserve games without trouble. He was only fit enough for the bench for the home game against Tianjin, but having him back was a huge boost.
The confidence was high and it was reflected in the way we played in the opening twenty minutes. The only thing that was missing was goals, and Tae-Goon happily obliged, latching onto Steve’s through ball and finishing past Du Jia.
Tianjin equalised before half-time, however. Cui Min didn't do much to justify his inclusion over the young and talented, yet under-performing, Liu Haidong by being comfortably outjumped by Fredy Montero. The Colombian’s header was exquisite, right into the far corner, but any decent centre half who could get off the ground wouldn't have allowed it.
I made two changes at half-time, replacing the under-performing Cui Min with Liu Haidong, and the ineffective Jin Bo with Cui Ren. The fresh legs elevated our performance. Tae-Goon chipped a fantastic pass over the top to meet the out-to-in run of Seung-Dae, and my inside forward continued his good scoring form. Seung-Dae had a great chance to make it 3-1, and we almost regretted not taking it at the end. Luck was on our side and we won the game 2-1. That made it three wins on the bounce – not quite relegation form, I daresay.
Sun Jun rejoined the squad after his hernia, and the squad was completely healthy again, as well as confident. The trip to Changchung, a fellow mid-table side, suddenly looked a lot more winnable.
Whether my tactics were too conservative, or whether the team lacked focus after a good run, the performance against Changchung was a disaster. They dominated most of the game, we struggled to get out of our half, and with every passing minute it felt more like the Guangzhou game had come two weeks early. Two goals in three minutes from Oumarou put the home side in a commanding position before half-time. We toiled away in the second half, but the damage had been done, and we returned to Yanji very much humbled and dumped back down to earth.
A home game against struggling Yongchang at least gave us a chance to put a poor result and performance behind us before the big trip to Guangzhou. Petrov, their manager, said at the start of the season that we would discover a harsh reality this season. On the eve of this game, he had more to say: he thought we would beat the drop.
It didn't escape me that he was playing games with us; an attempt to distract us from the game at hand. I answered cautiously to his comments, in hopes it would keep the team focused.
The first half was a complete non-event. Yongchang proved to be a very difficult side to break down, and our attack perhaps lacked the edge it had before the Changchun game. Steve had a chance to break the deadlock early in the second half, but put his shot straight at the keeper. Tae-Goon did likewise, but at least we were looking livelier.
That, of course, proved to be the perfect time for Yongchang to deliver the sucker punch. Mulenga rose above our centre backs, who just can’t jump that high, to head his side into the lead.
After that, we were scrambling for an equaliser. We came agonisingly close when Tae-Goon had a shot deflected onto the post, and then somehow had the rebound blocked off the line and out for a corner. The luck was on Yongchang’s side, and they walked away with three valuable points.
From three wins on the bounce to two defeats in a row. Football, eh?
Frankly, it was going to be three defeats in a row. Guangzhou were unbeaten in the league still, practically strolling to yet another title, with Jackson Martinez averaging over a goal per game. Playing them away from home is the Chinese equivalent to travelling to Barcelona and Real Madrid; you might as well write it off as a loss in advance and prepare for a beating.
At least, that was how I felt, until Scolari decided to mouth off at his press conference. He labelled our over-achievement in the league a fluke, and predicted a sharp decline in results once teams worked us out. To use an old cliché, Scolari had done my team talk for me.
Before the game, an old club favourite helpfully pointed out that Jackson Martinez was a threat, and I responded appropriately. Focusing on a single player against these big teams was always going to be risky, but cutting off the service to him was the only way we would get through the game without being humiliated.
The set-up worked, for a short while at least. We limited Guangzhou to harmless long range efforts, and even tested their keeper with a shot and forced a corner. Yet even when these sorts of sides aren't playing well, they still have players that can produce something out of nothing. Step forward Paulinho, the Spurs flop, to fire one in from 30 yards, and I'm left shaking my head wondering just what the hell I was supposed to do about that. My keeper probably felt the same.
Still, Guangzhou continued to not play at their best, and we continued to restrict them to long range efforts. 60 minutes in, Jackson Martinez was subbed off, having not had a kick, and I took it as a small victory. Seung-Dae continued to be a pest with his runs in behind, but he couldn't produce a good enough finish to get us back in the game. Eventually, they got that important second goal when our concentration finally slipped.
Yes, it was three defeats in a row, but I felt proud of our performance against the Champions and spirits were still high. Guangzhou’s mammoth shot count was deceptive: 14 of them were long ranged effort, the vast majority coming from Paulinho, who’s performance was the very epitome of the old adage “throw enough crap at something and eventually something will stick”.
As far the table was concerned, we were still looking good:
The teams at the bottom continued to struggle, and we had a nice gap between us and them. All we needed was to get back to winning ways quickly and ensure we kept that gap nice and wide.
Elsewhere in the world, the European season was coming to an end. Manchester City, Real Madrid, Juventus, Bayern Munich and PSG won their respective leagues, while Juventus beat Arsenal in the Champions League final. And as summer approached, so too did the Rio Olympics. China’s U23 side were drawn in a group with Brazil, Sweden and USA. I’ll be astonished if they win against any of those sides.
So ends May. June doesn’t get any easier with games against title challengers Beijing and Shandong, and the cup game against Jiangsu. I hope you join us for those because we might need your support.