Analysis: Brazilians star as Group H goes to the wire
Kawasaki: Kawasaki Frontale and Shanghai SIPG played out an entertaining 2-2 draw on Tuesday with the share of the spoils meaning Group H will be decided after the last round of fixtures in two weeks’ time.
One of the games of the tournament so far witnessed some excellent attacking play as honours ended even and the fate of the sides remained in the balance.
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Hulk hits form
Two seasons ago, Hulk netted nine times as Shanghai reached the semi-finals. Yet after scoring a combined total of just four – three of which were penalties – in reaching the last 16 in 2018 and in this year’s group stage, the Chinese side were in need of a big performance – and they got exactly that from their Brazilian captain.
The forward’s only goal of the tournament prior to Tuesday was a last-minute winner from the spot to defeat Kawasaki on Matchday One and, six minutes in, he tormented the J.League champions once more with one of the goals of the tournament. Receiving the ball in his own half, Hulk nudged it past Kyohei Noborizato and raced through on goal before rounding Jung Sung-ryong and slotting home.
Then, just minutes after Kawasaki had gone in front midway through the second half, the 32-year-old was at it again, although with a much simpler finish. This time, Hulk found room in the penalty area to get on the end of Brazilian compatriot Oscar’s cross to head in from just a few yards out.
As ever, there were some audacious shots from distance, while he rarely touched the ball inside his own half. But in the key area - the opposition half - he was active in all areas of the field as his best performance of the campaign ensured Shanghai go into their final fixture with qualification in their own hands.
Leandro proves his worth
Since joining Kawasaki at the beginning of the season, another Brazilian, Leandro Damiao, had struggled to make an impact on the Continent. Prior to Tuesday’s game, the striker had started two games (one of which he was withdrawn), had twice come off the bench as a late substitute and had failed to register a goal.
Yet, with his side one down, the 29-year-old finally showed what he could do with a goal that rivaled Hulk’s – albeit completely different. The forward received the ball 25 yards from goal, swiveled and laid off to Manabo Saito, who produced his own bit of trickery before playing back to Leandro. From here, the striker showed slight of foot inside the area then tucked home from 12 yards.
Unlike Hulk, Leandro preferred to stay in a more central role, looking for others to feed him from midfield, and he did not see nearly as much of the ball as his countryman. But he produced a moment of magic when it mattered most to delight the home support.
With a must-win game against eliminated Sydney FC in two weeks’ time, Leandro may just have found his confidence at a crucial time and Kawasaki will be hopeful their striker can maintain his form in Australia and that Ulsan Hyundai can do them a favour by taking points from Shanghai.
While Shanghai can be a joy to behold going forward, they have long since struggled at the other end and, indeed, in their past 25 five AFC Champions League games – dating back to the beginning of the 2017 campaign – they have kept just five clean sheets.
It was a familiar story in Japan and, while Leandro’s goal deservedly afforded him the plaudits, Shanghai had a number of chances to put a foot in, with both the Brazilian and Saito shrugging off tame challenges before the ball ended in the back of the net.
And when Kawasaki took the lead after the interval, there were five Shanghai defenders inside their own penalty area, yet the unmarked Shogo Taniguchi managed to find space to head home Hidemasa Morita’s delivery from the right.
Shanghai undoubtedly have the attacking flair to fire them to Continental glory, but ultimately it may come down to whether they can shore up a leaky defence in the weeks and, perhaps, months ahead.
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