Having introduced the teams that will compete in the first (and probably last) cross-calendar-year Asian Champions League a week ago, we today meet the clubs that just missed a spot on the continent. Surprisingly, some of the teams show better competitiveness than the four teams finished above them. Without further ado, let’s get them in here.
5. Chengdu Rongcheng
Having lost in a three-way tie with Zhejiang and Shanghai Port on head-to-head points, Chengdu are sitting comfortably in the top half of the table. They scored 15 goals, jointly the best tally alongside with Changchun, who is enjoying an exceptional goalscoring season from Leonardo. More on that when we get to Changchun.
In contrast to Changchun, Chengdu spread their goals among its attacking players. Kim Ming-woo is the unlikely beneficiary. He scored 4 goals in 8 rounds, extremely prolific for a player whose defense duties are not that simple. The Brazilian trident of Elkeson, Romulo, and Felipe Silva are also on form, scoring 3 each and Romulo is leading the assist stats, providing 6, 2 more than even Oscar, who is sitting second.
Of course. Then one can naturally ask why with such ferocity at the attacking end, the team is not doing better. The natural answer is their defence has caught up with something of an identity crisis. Liu Tao, the team’s long-time captain, has declined in form rapidly and is staying as a regular starter. Yang Yiming, the centre-back signed from Cangzhou, has not fit in with the team. Tang Miao, the dynamic right wingback who no doubt was persuaded by the reunion with his twin Tang Xin, is spending a long time injured. Tang Xin is also a right-back but is not as good as his brother. Old reliable Gao Chao is also injured.
But more importantly, the team’s defensive tactics seem in disarray. Yang Yiming, who spent much of his time in Cangzhou as a pure ball stopper, seems to be shouldering on more ball-playing duties, which did nobody (aside from their opponents, that is) any good. Another defence-minded signing, of midfield Zhang Gong from Guangzhou R&F, also show little value as he somehow miraculously transformed himself from being unable to register minutes at a team battles relegation to regular starter for a team fights for title.
Having said all that, Chengdu is still a team to be feared, if sometimes exploited too. With more players coming into rotation the best XI is surely not very far from discovery. Hu Hetao and Mutellip Iminqari, the dynamic attacking wing duo, are set to return from yet another idiotic national team training camp. Then we will see the full strength of the best Chengdu.
Last season, Meizhou Hakka’s energetic campaign for the top 4 came to a screeching halt when Henrique Dourado barged into Ma Ning for a call he thought had been unfair in a previous game. Injuries, including that of Dourado’s best partner Karanga, did not help.
At the start of this season, the team’s name has been reduced to a single word to signify where the team is. From ‘Jianye’ to ‘Songshan Longmen’ to simply Henan, behind the change lies the chaos in the team’s management and the malaise of the real estate sector that rocked most of the teams in the league but hit particularly hard on a team from a province with little other industry.
As nobody wants to touch the team with a barge pole, its operating budget was cut by two-thirds of what was a threadbare and COVID restriction-ridden 2022. On the pitch, the team was still able to sustain a respectable showing which is line with the quality of the players. But as their injury list gets ever longer, they will have to wait to repeat a run like 2009, when they qualified for the Champions League the following year.
7. Beijing Guoan
People used to chafe at the notion of the ‘Imperial Guards’, as the team’s nickname is known, playing at Workers’ Stadium. But the response would be ‘Of course, Imperial Guards are all working class. It is their employers that are aristocratic.’ But what a stadium Workers’ Stadium is now. The roads near the stadium have been pedestrianised come close to playing time and the annoying running tacks have been eliminated to make the stadium a specialised football stadium. Despite officials still clearing out the first six rows to minimise any incident, it is arguably the best stadium in northern China.
But the team’s performance still left something to be desired. As Zhang Yuning, the team’s attacking talisman is out, other players lack the creativity to send the goal inside the penalty box, let alone the net. Fang Hao, the winger who had terrific form for the national team, is again left on the bench unused, much like when he was playing for Shandong. Yang Liyu is a versatile attacking force and an excellent wingman for a centre-forward like Zhang, is doing well but cannot be expected to do everything. 、
In defence, the homecoming Han Jiaqi was arguably the best deal in the window. The China U23 International created enough excitement that Hou Sen, the team previously No. 1 but perennial backup choice, changed his number to 34. In front of him, captain Yu Dabao finally is freed back to play as a striker, leaving Bai Yang a sure starter at centre-back position as Liu Huan, Yu Yang, and Jin Pengxiang all left the team at the beginning of the season. Ruan Qilong is injured at the same time and Liang Shaowen was called up by the Olympic team. Li Lei return from his injury-laden stint at Grasshopper Zurich just in time to wave goodbye to Jin Taiyan and say hello to Zhang Chengdong, who throttled his career developments for good with a harsh tackle when still playing for Hebei. Zhang now mainly plays as a DM and does not get many opportunities to play anyway.
The Green Team created much hyped by really strengthening its midfield but it turns out if you do not have a good finisher all the nice passes would count for nothing. Without Zhang Yuning they crashed Cangzhou 6-2 coming twice from behind. But it was more attributable to the away team’s terrible defence than their own brilliant play. They should not count on such good luck every game.
8. Tianjin Jinmen Tiger
With many players coming through from Guoan, Tianjin has doubled up from being Guoan’s close rival to also being the redeeming ground for ex-Guoan players. Indeed, Ba Dun has scored in a tightly fought Jing-Jin derby when his team was a man down. His shot at the edge of the box was sharp enough to dodge Han Jiaqi’s save and go straight into the bottom right corner. The game ended in 1-1, arousing calls for the Guoan general manager Li Ming to step down.
But Tianjin also faces an enlarging injury list, having made only a modest upgrade to its squad. China International right back Ming Tian is the headline signing in an otherwise forgettable window. Cangzhou DM Guo Hao also joins, which will give Tianjin football legend Yu Genwei, now in his third year coaching the team. A one-team man, Yu scored 78 goals in 197 appearances for the team, playing as an agile, if not particularly speedy striker.
There was one time last season Tianjin saw a glimmer of hope of qualifying for the Champions League. But that chance came and went. With the emphasis put on squad stability over everything else, the team will wait other clubs to make mistakes.