Ssssssh. Not so loud. You’ll wake it up… What do you mean you don’t know what “it” is? I’m talking about the dip in form that hits Chinese Super League side Beijing Guoan every single season. It’s usually happened already by now in previous seasons, but for some reason this year, it has decided to stay away. For now.
In it to win it?
As I mentioned in the preview to the last round, Beijing Guoan would normally be miles off the pace of the leaders after 11 games in recent seasons and often also nearly out of the loop for the two other Champions League spots. But not this season.
After beating Changchun Yatai 2-0 last weekend, they are now sitting third in the league as the Super League takes a summer break. Not only is that the last Champions League spot, they are only one point behind league leaders Shanghai SIPG and second-placed Shandong Luneng.
And, as indicated by the title of this piece. Could this be the season that Beijing Guoan return to the top of the league, a place they haven’t been since 2009? Or at the very least, could this be the season they return to the Champions League, where they haven’t been since 2015?
So how did this happen?
Roger Schmidt came into the club in July last year and won five of his first eight games, bringing positivity to the squad.
Schmidt made Jonathan Soriano shine last season after the striker had struggled for game time behind Burak Yilmaz and had only scored two in six before Schmidt arrived. Yilmaz had seemed tired of playing in China and was underperforming. Schmidt placed his faith in the Spaniard who scored 14 in 13 games for the rest of the season.
When the season came to an ending about as fun as a wet firecracker, with only one win from the final eight games people hoped Schmidt could use the off-season well. And that he did.
Cedric Bakambu came in from Villarreal and Jonathan Viera followed suit a little later from Las Palmas to bolster the attacking threat.
But when the first game of the season ended in a 3-0 defeat to Shandong Luneng, the fans feared that this would be a season of striking from below. Then they turned it around.
Three impressive wins on the bounce were followed by three draws, including against reigning champions Guangzhou Evergrande. Then this month, they’ve beaten Shanghai SIPG, as well as Guizhou and Changchun last weekend, in addition to a draw with Guangzhou R&F. Which means only one loss so far this season, the only team with only one defeat in the league.
Making the foreigners tick
Schmidt has really made his foreign players blend into the team easily and play at their best.
This season it has been Cedric Bakambu who has been the man to bang in the goals, scoring eight in as many games, but Soriano has also done his part when called upon. He has scored five in the six league games he has played, as well as once in both the cup matches Beijing have played, both match-winning goals.
Renato Augusto has been a dynamo in the middle of the park, running the show from his midfield position. The versatile midfielder has also been influential on the left flank when utilised out there. So good has he been that his performances has secured him a spot in the Brazilian squad going to the World Cup in Russia.
Jonathan Viera has also been instrumental from his attacking midfield position, but one could perhaps hope he starts to provide even more in the goal and assist column. So far he has four goals and three assists in ten games, so it’s by no means bad, but maybe a few more assists could make his season outstanding.
They’ve also had to make due without stalwart goalkeeper, and captain, Yang Zhi who has been out for the entirety of the season with ruptured knee ligaments. He is suspected to return for the second half of the season. But in his place, Hou Sen has been outstanding in goal. The 28-year-old who is a product of Beijing’s own academy has been the understudy to Zhi for a decade and he has taken his chance now. Schmidt also gave a first-team debut last weekend to 20-year-old Guo Quanbou who kept a clean sheet in his first match between the sticks, so it’s growing well behind Zhi.
A fluke or here to stay?
The question now becomes, can Beijing keep it up when the teams return from the summer break on the 17th of July?
Or will the usual curse come knocking for Guoan and they will fall to fourth or fifth place, just far enough out of reach that it’s never really exciting if they can breach the top three? Or even worse, have a repeat of last year’s ninth-place finish, the clubs’ worst finish since 2003 when they equalled that place.
I don’t think that will happen. I think they could be on for a Champions League finish, helped by the horrific starts of Guangzhou Evergrande, Hebei China Fortune, Guangzhou R&F and Tianjin Quanjian.
I think this Beijing team could be the one to go all the way, because neither Shanghai SIPG, nor Shandong Luneng have looked as unbeatable as Evergrande normally do when they lead. And that can be exploited.
But I won’t utter the words out loud though, that would be to invite trouble. I’ll whisper them very quietly… This could be Beijing Guoan’s season. It really could.
The Beijing faithful probably won’t say it out loud either, but I think they are silently starting to believe something big is on the horizon.