Shanghai SIPG face testing month in pursuit of history

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If a week is a long time in football, then a month is like a lifetime. But the next month for will go a long way to determining their title credentials.

Currently sitting atop the Chinese Super League, one point ahead of four-time defending champions , the club formerly known as Shanghai East face a season defining month with matches against cross-town rivals (this Sunday), together with matches against second-placed Guangzhou Evergrande (12 September) and third-placed Shandong Luneng (26 September).

If that wasn’t enough, they also have a crucial FA Cup Quarter Final tomorrow (Wednesday) night, also against Shenhua.

Far from being daunted by the month ahead, the players are relishing the opportunity to challenge for silverware.

“Keeping in mind that the top four teams are so close in points and also in quality, I think it’s fair to say that it’ll go down to the wire,” striker Tobias Hysen told Football Channel Asia.

“All the players in our group are enjoying being on top. That’s why you play football, to be successful and to have the chance to win titles.

“We really believe we have a good chance of winning, but we won’t look ahead too much. It’s all about the next game.”

After finishing fifth last season, the club underwent an overhaul in the off-season with Shanghai International Port Group taking full control of the club, signing former Evergrande star Dario Conca and appointing former England and Lazio manager Sven-Göran Eriksson as coach.

His impact has been profound, according to Hysen.

“Sven has changed the way we conduct training,” he said. “It’s a more European style now, but we also have a different backroom staff, which is equally important. He (Sven) is one small part of a big group of people that is performing well.”

One member of that backroom staff, who made the move from Guangzhou R&F to Shanghai with Eriksson, is Mads Davidsen.

Like Hysen, he is not looking further ahead than the game this weekend against Shenhua, but concedes all games from here on are important.

“Obviously, these are difficult and crucial games, but in some way all of the last seven is for us,” he told Football Channel Asia. “Every point you lose now can change your position in the league.”

“We take one game, focus deeply on the next opponent and don’t think too far ahead,” he said.

In saying that, he did allow himself to look forward to the final two rounds when Guangzhou Evergrande face two of the other top four teams – Shandong and Beijing Guoan.

“(If) we are still up there in round 29 and round 30, then the fixtures could look to be to our advantage as our rivals meet each other in the last two rounds.”

In his second season at the club Hysen, formerly of Sunderland and IFK Göteborg, credits the players for much of the club’s success this season.

“Obviously he’s (Sven) the boss, so he picks the team. But as when you’re doing well or having troubles, it’s mostly down to the players,” the 33-year-old said.

“A manager can coach, pick tactics and set the team, but he can’t run, pass, defend or score goals. So the main reason we’re doing well is the quality of the players in the team.”

One of those players is Ghanaian international Asamoah Gyan, who completed a move from Al Ain last month and has hit the ground running, with three goals in his first five league games.

His signing has added an extra dimension to the Shanghai attack, according to Davidsen.

“Asa is a international top player,” he said. “He has a very, very high level and can make a difference for the team just by his presence.

“In you need individually strong foreigners, who can set themselves up so to speak, and here Asa is probably the best in doing this.

“Furthermore, we get another tactical dimension playing Asa and Hysen together if we wish to in some games.”

If they are to claim the title, it will be the first time since 2010 a side other than Guangzhou Evergrande has won the title. According to Cameron Wilson, chief editor of Wild East Football, that would be a good thing for Chinese football.

“Before the Evergrande era, the was one of the most competitive leagues around and won by a different team every year,” he told Football Channel Asia from his home in Shanghai.

“But it’s been four years now that Evergrande have won the title and I don’t think many outside of Guangzhou want to see that become five.

“A different champion this year would be significant not only for the obvious reason of simply not having the same team win the CSL every year, but also it would show the rest of Chinese football had finally caught up with the high standards Evergrande have set.”

But for SIPG, and the entire city of Shanghai, the focus is firmly on this week and the two big Shanghai Derbies.

“The city is buzzing,” Wilson said. “There’s a feeling that local football is back after years in the doldrums due to all the malarkey that went on in the past.”