Here we are, then. The start of the CSL season. In part three I go through my first three official matches as Yanbian manager and experience some mixed results.
If you're interested in reading from the beginning, Part One can be found here.
The day before the season opener I had to face the Chinese press and carefully negotiate a series of questions about Yanbian’s hopes of staying in the division. I decided to be as positive as possible to keep spirits high, even though you could imagine the disbelieving stares from the five journalists that turned up to this. News of my positivity spread quickly, and I'm informed that Yasen Petrov, manager of fellow relegation candidates Yongchang, thought my attempts at encouragement are “charming” but reality will be very different.
Maybe he was right. Or maybe we’ll prove him very, very wrong. Nonetheless Petrov’s comments did not sit well with the management or the squad, giving us a little bit more motivation to get something out of the Shandong game.
Shandong’s quality is evidently concentrated in the middle of the park. The double pivot of Argentine Walter Montillo and Brazilian Jucilei, a familiar name for some FM players I'm sure, is likely the best in the division, and so much better than what I have it’s not even funny. Surprisingly, Tardelli is fielded on the left of the attack and not in the centre to form a trio of foreign doom.
I chose to go with the old reliable 4-3-3, the one formation that has always worked for me over the years. Tae-Goon had the thankless task of chasing lost causes and fighting his way out the defender’s back pockets up top, while fellow Korean Seung-Dae had to settle with chasing up and down the left flank. With restrictions on the number of foreign players in the starting line-up, I have effectively fielded my best team.
Shandong threatened early on with a couple of dangerous long shots, one saved by our keeper, the other struck against the inside of the post. Jucilei and Montillo were already running things in the centre of the pitch, and while I was admiring a pair of fine of midfield displays, we managed to creep up the pitch and craft out a presentable chance for Tae-Goon. Sadly, he screwed his shot wide of the post. That chance seemed to give us some encouragement and we started to play more in their half. Half hour in, Seung-Dae forced their keeper into a save with a curling effort. The ball came back in from the right, and Seung-Dae came steaming in at the back post to head over.
Shandong realised we weren't going to bend over and take it and raised their game a bit. We got a lucky break when Wu Lei struck the post when he should have scored. Not long after, Shandong worked the ball down the left, cut the ball back to Montillo on the edge of the box, and he fired it into the top corner. 1-0 Shandong, and not an awful lot we could have done about it.
At half-time I praised the team for a spirited performance so far and made a couple of offensive tweaks. Shandong seemed content with their lead and stood off us, allowing us to play higher up the pitch and probe their defensive third. Around 60 minutes I freshened up the attack – Jin Bo on for the hard working Tae-Goon, and Han Guanghui for Cui Ren. The changes paid off when, in the 81st minute, Jin Bo swung a delicious cross towards the back post, and Guanghui was there to put in the equaliser. Cue mad celebrations in my room, all by myself.
A very pleasing start to the season, then. Shandong didn't play particular well but this could well be a vital away point come the end of the season.
We get a whole week to rest up and prepare for our first home game of the season against Hangzhou. I was confident of getting a win from the game, although that took a hit with news that key midfielder Yoon Bit-Garam would be out for two months with strained knee ligaments. The natural replacement, Steve, was serving a four match suspension and wouldn't be available until April.
Piao Shihao deputised for Bit-Garam, while Han Xuan came in at centre back and Petkovic shifted to left back. Pei Yuwen would play a more defensive role to combat the threat of Angan, a rapid Ivorian winger equally proficient with either foot, and hopefully cut off some of the service to Brazilian forward Anselmo Ramon.
With the home crowd behind us, we exerted some early pressure on the Hangzhou goal, and 10 minutes in took the lead thanks to a belter from Sun Jun from the edge of the area. Hangzhou responded with a few waves of their own attacks, which saw Agnan hit the post and Anselmo Ramon fluff an easy chance that came from a period of long balls and header-tennis lifted straight from a Sunday League game. Then, on the stroke of half-time, Tae-Goon nodded in an important second goal.
I decided that we would hold on to what we had and the set the team up to counter attack. Predictably the deeper we sat the more pressure we came under, but for the most part Hangzhou were restricted to long shots. Anselmo Ramon had a couple of half chances, but he was, thankfully, not having a good day and failed to hit the target both times. We successfully saw out the 2-0 win.
Four points from our opening two games was a fantastic start, especially as both results were greeted with a degree of shock from the media. But we can’t always have nice things, and this nice run was about to end.
In hindsight, I might have gone too defensive for this game. The threat of Alex Teixeira persuaded me to set the team up to be as deep and compact as possible so as to limit the space he can use, but ultimately all it accomplished was invite intense pressure on our goal and prevent us from mustering any sort of threat.
Right from the start it was wave after wave of Jiangsu pressure, all instigated by Teixeira. It tookuntil the 20th minute for us to get up the other end of the pitch, thanks to Tae-Goon going on a miraculous run up the pitch. Predictably, he lost it, Jiangsu went up the other end and took the lead.
I didn't need much more convincing that I had to change things. I instructed the team to push up a bit more, and gave the wingers more freedom to get forward and support the lonely Tae-Goon. But before this plan could really take shape, Li Ang curled in a free-kick. Two minutes later Han Xuan conceded a penalty and Teixeira calmly converted. 3-0 by half-time. As the commentator pointed out, it all got a bit embarrassing.
Unfortunately, there is no “forfeit” or “go home” option, so me and the small band of travelling supporters had to endure the second half and pray the scoreline didn't get any worse. I switched to a 5-4-1 in hopes of limiting the damage and that, along with Jiangsu knowing they had the points in the bag, saw no more goals fly into our net. Petkovic managed to get one back for us and bring a bit more respectability to the scoreline, but overall we were well beaten. 3-1 the final score.
Slap bang in the middle of the table, with one win, one draw and one loss. All in all, not a bad start, as we've already got that first win and two of the tougher away games out the way early. I was told in a press conference that 35 points would be needed to stay up, so just 31 points to go.
Three guesses who the best performer in the league is:
It is, of course, Alex Teixeira. Along with him, Fredy Montero and Jackson Martinez have made strong, prolific starts to life in China. The list dominated by foreign players, but I'm sure the Chinese national team manager is pleased to see a couple of Chinese players in there too.
Look out for part four as we take on another title contender, have mixed fortunes away from home and ultimately start winning more games than we should be.