Chinese teams off to strong start in AFC Champions League

Society & Culture

China's four teams in the 39th edition of Asia's premier soccer tournament are off to a good start. The AFC Champions League was postponed in March due to COVID-19, and is now proceeding under a unique format, with all games played in Qatar.

SIPG header vs Sydney in Asian Champions League

Chinese teams had good results in the opening round of the AFC Champions League East Zone. All matches are being held in Qatar, which hosted the other half of the tournament — involving teams from the West Zone — last month.

Iran’s Persepolis FC awaits the winner of the East Zone in the tournament final on December 19.

Both Shanghai teams claimed three points against Australian foes, while Beijing Guoan eased past a lackluster FC Seoul.

In the opening tie, Shanghai Shenhua came out on top against Perth Glory, despite only having 41 percent of the possession. Shenhua, which finished fifth in the CSL, were clinical in front of goal during the first half. A well-worked goal down the left by Péng Xīnlì 彭欣力 gave Shenhua a 7th minute advantage, before Yú Hànchāo 于汉超 pushed the ball past a squirming Perth goalkeeper in the 38th minute to put Shenhua two up.

On Saturday, however, Shenhua lost to Ulsan Hyundai FC 3-1. Still, Shenhua is sitting pretty in Group F, currently in second place.

Guoan, on the other hand, dominated in their opening clash against FC Seoul. The 2-1 final score disguised the fact that Guoan was much better than their Korean rivals. An early goal from Fernando in the 8th minute gave Beijing the breathing room to control the game.

Despite missing the CSL’s top goalscorer, Bakambu, the midfield diamond of Zhāng Xīzhé 张稀哲, Chí Zhōngguó 池忠国, Fernando, and Renato Augusto gave Guoan the platform to control the game and break up the Seoul attacks.

In the 60th minute, Beijing added a deserved second to its tally. The referee awarded a soft handball decision six minutes later that led to Seoul’s only goal.

Thankfully, the dodgy penalty call did not change the eventual result, with Guoan easing to a 2-1 victory.

Beijing also beat Melbourne Victory 3-1 today. Added to the group game it won before the season was suspended — a 1-0 win against Chiangrai United on February 18 — and we have a team that’s 3-0 with nine points, most in Group E.

Meanwhile, SIPG claimed two 2-1 wins: against the Australian and Korean champions. In a close-fought opening bout, SIPG had to come from behind against Sydney FC. It took SIPG’s Lǐ Shènglóng 李圣龙 more than an hour to equalize after an 8th-minute opener from Sydney.

Fifteen minutes later, Li Shenglong’s controlled diving header gave SIPG the winning goal against one of the tournament’s stronger sides.

In SIPG’s second game, a Hulk penalty was the difference between SIPG and the reigning Korean champions Jeonbuk. However, unlike in their opening game, SIPG lacked fluidity and, in reality, were lucky to win the game. Despite Jeonbuk having 64 percent of the ball and 11 shots, SIPG was able to show defensive solidity and aggressiveness to stave off wasteful Korean attacks.

Elsewhere, CSL runners-up Guangzhou Evergrande — still probably China’s strongest team — was held to a goalless draw by Suwon Bluewings.

Qatar is hosting this year’s tournament, after the AFC Champions League was suspended in March due to the pandemic. Unlike previous editions of the tournament, all the games will occur entirely within Qatar. And for the first time, VAR — virtual assistant referee — is being used during the tournament’s knockout rounds.


Chen Meng makes table tennis history

Chen Meng vs Wang Manyu
Chen Meng vs Wang Manyu

Chén Mèng 陈梦 became the first woman in ping pong history to claim four ITTF Finals (full name: ITTF World Tour Grand Finals) titles in a row on Sunday when she beat rival Wáng Mànyù 王曼昱 4-1.

Along with a nice $50,000 check, Chen heads into the new year as the undisputed No. 1 in the world.

Two weeks ago, Chen won the ITTF Women’s World Cup. During these two runs, Meng dispatched every one of her closest rivals, the likes of five-time U.S. national champion Lily Zhang, China’s second-best player Sūn Yǐngshā 孙颖莎 (twice), and Wang Manyu.

It’s pretty hard to find anyone to challenge Chen for Olympic gold next summer.

Except, perhaps, for world No. 2 Ito Mima, the Japanese star who has tons of potential, but also inconsistency. She lost in the semifinals to Wang on Saturday.

The China Sports Column runs every week on SupChina.