Our fifth season in charge here in Chengdu, China, and we are still on a high. Fresh off a domestic double, I knew that we couldn’t stand still this year as we push for the AFC Champions League; the final cup required to move on from this leg of the journey.
Our squad remained very much the same as last year’s squad, with 3 additions arriving to give us more depth. Our finances had not improved at this stage, so we were hunting for cheap deals, only forking out money for one signing.
Two capped central defenders would be arriving to shore up the defence and ensure that we have strength in depth as a last line of defence, with Zhu Chenjie, being the more experienced of the two defenders, arriving from Shanghai Shenua. Ning Nan has a lot of potential behind him and was being closely followed by a number of clubs in China. We did manage to win the race for his signature, and he was arriving on a free from Hebei.
Yousef Salech was originally arriving to partner Kim Yu-Song up-front in the summer, but Brøndby IF only required £72K to allow him to move in January as opposed to waiting until the summer. I was keen to get him paired with Yu-Song, and I got to work on adopting a formation that paired two strikers, losing our influential CAM in the process.
Pre-season was short lived due to our participation in the Chinese Super Cup; a game that I was planning on using as pre-season prior to the domestic campaign starting the following week.
Impressive wins over two Korean sides filled me with confidence that we should be able to hold our own in the AFC Champions League which kicks off in August, but we would have the opportunity to further strengthen the team with the summer transfer window.
Beijing Guoan fought from 2-0 and 5-3 down to take us all the way to penalties, where we miss 3 of our possible 5. Those sort of statistics are not good enough at this level of football, and it was something I was keen to train to ensure we don’t fall out of a competition in that manner once again.
Following on from the disappointment of a cup final, we bounced back in spectacular fashion, going 6 unbeaten in the league before our form started to blip at the end of April and half of May.
A Fifth Round exit to the hands of Beijing Guoan was equally as disappointing as the Super Cup final, and we would not be retaining our status as champions this season. That defeat was the final straw in a changed structure, and I elected to revert back to the trusted 4-2-3-1 that had brought us last season’s successes; it proved to be the correct decision as we thumped Nantong Zhiyun 6-1.
After returning to the tried and tested formation, we began to lay out our championship retaining status, but dropped points against direct rivals Henan Songshan Longmen and Shandong Taishan, along with a a missed opportunity against Tianjin Jinmen Tiger, left us trailing the leaders going into the summer transfer window. Winning the league was not impossible at this stage, but we had left ourselves a mountain to climb.
8 points with a game in hand, things were not impossible at this stage. Particularly with a return game to play against Beijing Guoan on the final day of the season. We just had to hope that Shandong Taishan would drop points along the way, and that Shanghai Shenhua would drop off the pace given their extra game in hand on us.
Only one arrival into the squad for the business end of the season and the group stages of the AFC Champions League. Liu Jun joins from rivals Beijing Guoan for a fee of £775K. This completes our options on the right-hand side of defence now, and I was delighted to get another bright young talent in through the door, and off the books of a rival.
Satisifed with my squad, it was time to to kick back on with the closing stage of the league campaign, whilst starting off the Champions League in the correct fashion. With a win. Winning games so early on is massive for the confidence of the players, and treating each group game like a knockout was going to be my approach. We found out that we would be playing against Viettel FC of Vietnam, Johor Darul Ta’zim of Malaysia and finally FC Seoul of South Korea, who we already had knowledge about following our recent pre-season friendlies.
Almost two perfect months, ruined by a fully rotated side against the Malaysians for a massive showdown match against Shanghai Port the following weekend. There were some massive performances along the way, including three games where we won by a 4 goal margin over FC Seoul, Wuhan Three Towns and Chengdu Rongcheng – our city rivals were back in the top-flight but had shipped 7 goals this season against us, Chengdu is yellow and red!
In the Champions League, we had taken full control of the group following the FC Seoul win, despite dropping points to the Malaysian side. Things could change when we travel to South Korea to play FC Seoul in the final match, but I would fully anticipate us to qualify from the group as one of the best placed runners up as the absolute last resort.
Things were looking rosey at this point given our 7 wins from 7 in the league; this had actually overturned the defecit to Beijing Guoan, and we now sit top of the league by a point over Shandong Taishan.
This league campaign was going to go to the wire.
Our run at this stage of the season was incredible, and it came as no surprise that we finished the month of October off perfectly. A massive 3-2 win over Shanghai Port followed up with a narrow victory over Shenua really told Shandong Taishan that we were not in the mood to drop points this late into the season, and that they would need to pray for a miracle.
We could have played better over the course of the month, but we did come into it with a fresh perspective. Life is easier when you are in control of your own fate. Shandong Taishan matched our wins with wins of their own to take the league down to the final day, we travelled to Beijing whereas they travelled to Henan Songshan Longmen, who were looking to seal a continental spot of their own.
Life in the Champions League however, planned out as I thought it would. Routine victories over Viettel and Johor Darul Ta’zim meant that it was going to be a straight shootout against FC Seoul for the group winner status, and it was something I was keen to achieve. This final game away in South Korea was going to be massive to implement the idea of knockout football.
First things first, FC Seoul game was maniac from start to finish. We really showed grit and character to come back to China with the 3 points after FC Seoul came back to 3-3 late on in the game – Kim Yu-Song setting up John Hou Sæter with the last kick of the game. Our first appearance at the Champions League and we have topped the group, it was going to be a huge ask to come back after a short pre-season to highly competitive football like this, but it was a challenge I was relishing.
Domestically, the league was wrapped up inside 50 minutes at Beijing, with our new found confience and buzz being too much for the hosts to handle. Despite it looking as though we would struggle to retain the league at one point, we had managed to keep a hold of the Super League, and for the first time since 2022, Shanghai Port were not in the top 3 places.
With qualification secured to the latter stages of the Champions League, this transfer window and pre-season was going to be the most important one of my stint in China. Success was so close that I could taste it, but we had some big teams to navigate through the final stages.
Could this be the year we shock Asian football, and book flight tickets to Uruguay? Time will tell…