The Blue Devils and Red Eagles Race for Third

CSLShanghai SIPG find themselves level on points with Shanghai Shenhua in the Chinese Super League (CSL) following Sunday’s win at Hangzhou Greentown.

The top-three sides in the CSL and CFA Cup winners qualify for the following season’s Asian Champions League (ACL) which will naturally help recruit players…if the hugely inflated salaries weren’t enough already.

Both sides have just five games of the season remaining and on the face of it, SIPG have a more challenging run in.

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But whilst SIPG have ‘stronger’ opponents, three of their games come a day before Shenhua’s giving Sven Goran-Eriksson’s team the chance to crank up the pressure on their city rivals. Shenhua, however, will be pleased that two of those three are against the league’s top two sides.

The Blue Devils’ shaky away form (8th in the division) should improve with Gregorio Manzano’s side travelling to three of the CSL’s bottom six clubs. They will host their toughest opponents (Henan and Beijing) at the Hongkou Stadium where they’re currently unbeaten in the league.

SIPG’s home form on the other hand isn’t quite so impressive. It’s also unlikely to get much better as they still have leaders Guangzhou Evergrande, Manuel Pellegrini’s Hebei Fortune and Shandong Luneng – who like SIPG, recently lost their ACL quarter-final tie against South Korean opposition – to visit.

Shenhua need Cao Yunding (4 goals, 8 assists), Giovanni Moreno (7 goals, 3 assists) and Obafemi Martins (8 goals, 3 assists) to hit form in the close season. The trio, minus the injured Ba’s 14 strikes, have scored 70.4% of Shenhua’s league goals this season.

As a team, Shenhua have scored 29.3% (12 of 41) of their goals in the last 15 minutes which suggests their fitness and concentration levels are better than most of their opponents.

sipgSIPG, meanwhile, have rarely scored between the 15th and 30th minute of games but they do tend to have more joy in the second half, peaking from the hour mark until the 75th minute. They’ll hope Asian record signing, Hulk, can carry his side to a strong finish which given his name and appearance, should be more than possible.

The rivalry between these two sides means local pride is of greater value than ACL qualification. That theory gained credence after last night’s results mean the CFA Cup final is between Guangzhou Evergrande and Jiangsu Suning, which will likely see the team that finishes fourth also qualify.

Shenhua supporters view SIPG as the new, unwanted kids on the block. SIPG fans see their club as a fresh start, post the match-fixing era that has tainted Chinese football. Though referees and players are no longer being bribed, Shenhua’s following would suggest that has now transferred to the support of their counterparts with claims that the Shanghai International Port Group (SIPG) pay their employees to attend matches and help fill the 56,000 capacity Shanghai Stadium. SIPG’s lavish spending on foreigners in terms of transfer fees and/or wages has also left their fans suffering from the ‘plastic’ label.

shenhuaLast night, Manzano showed where his priorities lie during the CFA Cup semi-final against Jiangsu Suning. The Spanish manager opted for a makeshift team that saw all of his foreign players and some of his stronger Chinese personnel rested for the second-leg despite the fact his side were very much in the tie following a first-leg 3-2 defeat. They subsequently lost 1-0 and were eliminated 4-2 on aggregate.

It undervalues the CFA Cup much like the domestic cup competitions in England. Although, semi-finals often see a side’s strongest eleven fielded regardless of their league circumstances.

Naturally, fans are upset and frustrated by this move and that will only intensify if they fail to overcome SIPG. But if they do manage to finish third then last night’s line-up would be quickly forgotten by most.

This battle is so close that it might be even more interesting than the title race which looks likely to be won by Guangzhou Evergrande for a sixth consecutive year. Although, the penultimate game of the season away to second-placed Jiangsu Suning could make things a little tenser when the campaign comes to an end on the 5th November.