John Duerden argues why despite looking like they will end the season without a major trophy, Andre Villas Boas deserves to stay at Shanghai SIPG.
At the start of the season, Shanghai SIPG wanted to win a title: either the Chinese Super League or the AFC Champions League. Either would have done for a big-spending club with a bank balance and ambition that dwarfs the number of items in their trophy cabinet.
Neither are going to come to pass and it leaves just the Chinese FA Cup, a consolation but not much of one. If that competition is not won, the two-legged final comes against city rivals Shanghai Shenhua next month, then the cabinet is not going to take too long to clean.
With three games remaining in the league, SIPG are six points behind leaders Guangzhou Evergrande. Not even the most optimistic person among the 23 million people who call the city home will expect any other outcome apart from Guangzhou taking a seventh successive league title and that will probably be confirmed this weekend.
If the league has moved out of reach, the Champions League became the focus of the club’s attention. Moving into the semi-finals against Urawa Reds, Shanghai were probably the favourites. They had eliminated Guangzhou in an unforgettable quarter-final showdown, despite letting a 4-0 first leg slip and needing a penalty shootout.
Yet the epic nature of that clash is lessened, at least in the minds of Shanghai fans, by the fact that they lost to the Japanese in the very next round.
The first leg in China ended 1-1 and Urawa took the tie with a 1-0 win at a packed Saitama Stadium. The defence left Rafael Silva unmarked in the area at a corner and his header was to be the difference between the two.
Shanghai’s defence has improved this season but there are still chinks in the armour. Not for the first time, they were revealed but the big-name offensive players were not able to come to the rescue.
Star attacker Hulk tried his best and enjoyed a real ding-dong with Urawa centre-back Tomoaki Makino. As hard as the Brazilian worked however, he could not get goal number ten in this year’s tournament.
Fellow Brazilian Oscar was more disappointing. The playmaker, signed from Chelsea before the start of the season, did not have as much influence as coach Andre Villas-Boas would have wanted. When the going got tough, Oscar did not get going.
It all meant that Shanghai missed a great chance to become the first Chinese team, apart from Guangzhou, to make the Champions League final.
It remains to be seen how the club reacts. This is Shanghai’s best ever season but that was always the minimum requirement given that the club spent over $100 million in the last half of 2016 on Hulk and Oscar.
In his first season in China, coach Andre Villas-Boas has taken the team to second in the league and the last four in Asia. A year ago, Sven Goran Eriksson was released after third and the last eight. His Portuguese successor should not suffer the same fate, at least not yet.
Investment did raise expectations a little but while there will be a little pressure on AVB he is not the first to be unable to stop Guangzhou winning the title. The Southern China tigers are a point away from a magnificent seventh successive league title. Under Luiz Felipe Scolari, Guangzhou know how to pick up points and often do just enough.
— Oscar (@oscar8) October 17, 2017
Perhaps the most disappointing part of the season for Shanghai is that they never really put enough pressure on Guangzhou. They were times when they looked like catching the leaders but never really managed to breathe down their necks. Things may have been different had they done so.
Villas-Boas will point to the eight-match ban handed out to Oscar in June for a fairly innocuous act of kicking the ball against an opponent. Hulk and Wu Lei were also banned for two games for publicly supporting their team-mate. Had all that never happened, then it is entirely possible that Shanghai would have picked up the extra three or four points that would have made things really interesting.
Perhaps no other Asian club has the star power of SIPG but it is not just about the big names. Shanghai offer more first team opportunities to young Chinese talent than most and have invested in youth development as well as the big name imports. The future is bright.
China is not an easy place to go and suddenly work magic but AVB has built a solid foundation. Shanghai SIPG have been a better team in 2017 than 2016. That they were not quite good enough is not cause to change a coach who has produced one of the most entertaining teams in Asia.
Ambitions are high and while some pressure is healthy, some patience is needed. If Shanghai improve as much in 2018 as they did in 2017 then they will soon be lifting a trophy and it will not be the Chinese FA Cup. Andre Villas-Boas should not be fired.