Tough July for Guangzhou Evergrande piles pressure on Luiz Felipe Scolari
Having progressed to the quarterfinals of the 2017 AFC Champions League while also topping the Chinese Super League table, the level of uncertainty surrounding Guangzhou Evergrande these days can be hard to comprehend. Yet, the six-time CSL champions have undoubtedly found the 2017 season somewhat of a chore thus far.
This past weekend saw Luiz Felipe Scolari's side suffer a second 4-2 derby defeat in the space of 10 days, once more outplayed by rivals R&F at the traditional Cantonese football headquarters at Yuexiushan. Though R&F have always maintained a better record than most against their neighbours, in the context of a July calendar that brought just one win in six games for the reigning champions, these were significant blows to the Evergrande machine.
The highs of the 10-match winning streak in the league that led Scolari's team into the past month are already long forgotten, but when the club surprisingly disabled the comment function on their official Weibo account on Sunday, accusations of hypersensitivity to criticism re-emerged. Behind the scenes, all is clearly not well and Scolari has become the focus of much fan criticism.
The Brazilian has won two league titles and one AFC Champions League trophy since his 2015 arrival in Guangzhou, but has continually suffered with unfavourable comparisons to predecessor Marcello Lippi. In the club's recent run, it is he and the club's overseas players who have had to bear the brunt of the negativity.
"I'm not satisfied with the defensive performance. We need to find a way to fix these problems," Scolari told reporters this weekend following a run of 10 goals conceded in the past three games across all competitions.
"We've won six titles in a row and if we wish to win a seventh, everyone is going to have to give a bit more and find a way to fix the faults. We'll work on it in training."
There can be no denying that injuries and suspension handicapped his side this weekend, with senior defenders Zhang Linpeng and Feng Xiaoting absent along with midfield general Zheng Zhi. However, the 27 goals conceded thus far this campaign can't all be excused in such a manner, with Evergrande's seasonal record-high for goals conceded over the past seven years standing at just 30. The security that once allowed their attacking talents to shine can no longer be relied upon.
Never more so was the side's defensive frailty visible than in last week's top-of-the-table clash with Andre Villas-Boas' Shanghai SIPG in China's second city. Twice in the second half, Scolari's side took the lead in the potentially decisive clash only to see their advantage pulled back on both occasions.
Indeed, the only saving grace for Scolari at the current point in time is that Villas-Boas' boys have failed to capitalise on any of the three opportunities they have had in recent weeks to go to the top of the league.
"Scolari has failed to take Evergrande to a higher level, maybe needs to sit down and have a good chat with the club," was the assessment of former China midfielder Xu Yang speaking on CCTV5 following this weekend's defeat.
"The time to make a change has come, it's already a very difficult time for the club -- the whole situation is not ideal regardless of whether its tactics or mentality. Compared with what we are used to from Evergrande, the feeling now is completely different."
There are, however, some positives for Scolari to point to in any discussions with the club -- principally that SIPG remain in arrears in the title race. Of fixtures with the league's top six sides, only the visit of Tianjin Quanjian on the season's final day remains and the club will therefore expect to win the majority of their remaining 11 games. It was during this difficult month for the champions that SIPG surely had to build an advantage if they were to seize possession of the CSL crown.
Scolari is under pressure and it will be his Champions League performance upon which his performance this year is ultimately assessed. Meandering to another CSL title will look good on his stellar resume, but in Evergrande headquarters, this is seen merely as a minimum expectation. The Brazilian survived the chop last year but is unlikely to do so again.
Tuesday evening brings the second leg of the ongoing CFA Cup quarterfinal with R&F, a tie in which Scolari's side currently trail 4-2. Following a brace of defeats to their rivals over the past fortnight, it is a game which has begun to feel defining for Scolari's future prospects. Another defeat would simply bring about a further raft of criticism.
Evergrande remain top of the pile in China, but their ascendancy is undoubtedly being threatened. Talk of the end of an era may be premature given the likelihood of further success, but the aura around the club is currently diminished. Back on home soil on Tuesday, it is up to his players to prove they still have the motivation to retain their place atop a pedestal in the Chinese game.
Chris Atkins is based in China and writes for ESPN FC about the Chinese Super League. You can follow him on Twitter @ChrisAtkins_.