Tianjin Quanjian face real test of mettle in Jeonbuk rematch

Paul Williams Paul Williams

Paul Williams believes ambitious Chinese outfit Tianjin Quanjian can show they really mean business by salvaging some pride against Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors in the AFC Champions League.

If Paulo Sousa wanted an early test of the mental toughness of his Tianjin Quanjian side, he’ll get it tonight when they take on the high-flying Jeonbuk Hyundai at home, as they look to make amends for last week’s horror show in Jeonju when they lost 6-3 to the two-time continental champions.

Tianjin was one of the surprise packets of last year’s Chinese Super League season. Having only just been promoted from China League One at the end of 2016, and spending heavily to do so, they were expected to finish in the top half of the table, but few predicted they’d do as well as they did, finishing third, just four points behind Shanghai SIPG in second place.

By the end of the season Fabio Cannavaro had his side purring losing only two of their last 17 matches, but having taken the side from China League One to the AFC Champions League, Cannavaro jumped at the chance to return to his former club in Guangzhou Evergrande and former Fiorentina manager Paulo Sousa was quickly installed as the new man in charge at Quanjian.

With a trio of international stars – Alexandre Pato, Axel Witsel and Anthony Modeste – at his disposal, and a handful of talented current and former Chinese national team players – Wang Yongpo, Sun Ke and Zhao Xuri – alongside, all the ingredients are there for a tilt at not only the CSL title, but also a deep run in the AFC Champions League.

A win at home against Hong Kong minnows Kitchee, and a draw away against Kashiwa Reysol got their campaign off to the right start, but it was the back-to-back matches against Jeonbuk that would really test their credentials as a bona fide contender on the continent.

Modeste has scored five goals in six games for Quanjian thus far in 2018.

Sadly for Sousa’s men, they came up well short, humiliated by a rampant Jeonbuk outfit that banged in goals for fun, six of them in total. Only two late goals added some slight credibility to the scoreboard, but the 6-3 loss put a serious dent in their legitimacy as a contender this year, and no doubt bruised a few egos in the changerooms.

But the great thing about sport is you always get a chance to redeem yourself, and their chance comes at home tonight. With Kashiwa playing away to Kitchee, which on the evidence of the first three match days will mean three points, Tianjin are in danger of dropping out of the top two if they don’t take all three points against Jeonbuk.

It’s what makes tonight’s match such a fascinating affair.

While Tianjin undoubtedly has the quality in attack to trouble Jeonbuk, it’s at the other end of the park where they need to find the improvement. Can their defence improve enough in a week to keep out the rampant Jeonbuk attack?

In their first two matches against Kitchee and Kashiwa, as well as their playoff against Filipino side Ceres-Negros, their defence looked susceptible to a quality attack and so it proved when they ran into Jeonbuk last week.

This is a key test for Sousa early in his tenure in Tianjin.

He needs to find the defensive stability they were known for last year. Last season under Cannavaro, Tianjin had the best defence in the CSL, conceding just 33 goals in 30 games. At the other end, however, they had on paper the worst attack in the top six.

Axel Witsel is part of Quanjian’s trio of famous imports.

With Modeste only joining midway through the season, their scoring prowess improved as the season wore on, and with a full pre-season under his belt the Frenchman looks ready for a big 2018 in China, with five goals in six games in all competitions this year already.

What Sousa needs to do is find the right balance between attack and defence. With his defence looking vulnerable, the Portuguese tactician needs more from midfield duo Zhao and Belgian international Witsel, to provide a solid base in midfield and protect the back four, while full backs Zhang Cheng and Mi Haolun need to focus on their positioning after being caught out numerous times, not only against Jeonbuk but also against Kashiwa on Match Day Two.

It all adds up to a fascinating night in Tianjin. Does Quanjian have what it takes to compete with the best in Asia and do they have the mental fortitude to rebound from last week’s humiliation? We’ll soon find out.