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Shanghai: Andre Villas-Boas’ Shanghai SIPG side have advanced to the 2017 AFC Champions League semi-finals with a consistent tactical approach, regardless of opponent.

With great attacking strength at his disposal, the Portuguese has sought to set up in a manner which frees his forwards Hulk, Elkeson and Wu Lei to attack while also retaining numbers behind the ball in SIPG’s 4-3-3 defensive structure.

However, there have been frailties at the back evident throughout the tournament with 17 goals conceded in their 10 appearances to date.

Despite those concerns, following victory over compatriots Guangzhou Evergrande and a Chinese Super League success against city rivals Shanghai Shenhua, they will be full of confidence ahead of Wednesday’s first leg.

Hulk key to SIPG attacking threat but must track back

With eight goals in eight 2017 AFC Champions League appearances, Brazilian Hulk is currently topping the goalscoring charts for this year’s competition.

The Brazilian was on the scoresheet the first time the two sides met in March this year, but missed the corresponding away fixture when SIPG drew a blank in Japan.

For all of Wu Lei, Oscar and Elkeson’s brilliance, it is Hulk who has stepped up when it matters in the competition this season. Against Evergrande, when 4-0 down on the night in Tianhe Stadium, the former Zenit and Porto man struck a powerful free-kick to give his team renewed hope in extra-time.

His previous outing against Urawa brought one goal, five shots, three key passes and one assist in what was a fine individual showing.

However, both Hulk and Wu Lei on either side of central striker Elkeson will need to ensure they offer their full-backs increased defensive cover. 

With Urawa’s 3-4-3 setup strong on numbers in midfield, any failure by either wide player to track back could lead to overload scenarios on the flanks— as exploited by Evergrande.

Absent Yan Junling adds to defensive concerns

Conceding five goals to Guangzhou Evergrande in the second leg of their quarter-final fixture almost saw SIPG’s AFC Champions League campaign come to an abrupt end. However, redemption came in the form of a penalty shootout.

Yet, even the shootout was to prove costly as goalkeeper Yan Junling earned a booking which will keep him out of the first-leg of the semi-final. In his place, 28-year-old Sun Le will deputise.

The change will do little to dampen fears over SIPG’s defensive stability and just two clean sheets have been earned so far.

Last time out against Evergrande, SIPG leaked a remarkable 26 shots to their Chinese rivals in almost surrendering a 4-0 first leg advantage as shown. 

While the freedom afforded to their attacking trio may benefit the side offensively, the lack of protection offered to their full-backs is a particular concern—an area dramatically exploited by Evergrande just a fortnight ago.

SIPG must be content to play without the ball

Both of SIPG’s previous encounters with Reds this season have followed the same pattern, with Urawa controlling the ball for large periods but the Chinese side creating more clear-cut chances.

Even in a 1-0 defeat away in Japan, Villas-Boas’ charges had chances to win the game including two efforts from the penalty spot from Brazilian Oscar which failed to find the net. On the night SIPG had 14 shots to Urawa’s nine, despite just 42.2 percent of possession.

With Urawa’s defenders frequently content to pass among themselves, SIPG will continue to prioritise defensive shape and speed in transition, with Wu Lei, Elkeson, Hulk and Oscar ready to strike on the break.

Even on the night of their 4-0 quarter-final first leg victory over Evergrande, SIPG enjoyed just 34 percent of possession as they hit the CSL leaders with ruthless efficiency on the break.

With 25 goals scored in their 10 games thus far, SIPG have had little problem finding the net in AFC Champions League action in spite of their overall lack of ball possession. 

Against Urawa they will likely have to repeat this feat once again.

Photos: Lagardère Sports