Guangzhou Evergrande get major CSL boost from Paulinho and Anderson Talisca
Fabio Cannavaro's smile lit up the Tianhe Stadium as he punched the air to celebrate Anderson Talisca's second goal -- a delightful curling, dipping effort -- in Guangzhou Evergrande's 5-0 mauling of Chongqing Lifan on Sunday.
From having to handle speculation over his future to Guangzhou's second successive thrashing of an opposition since the league's post-World Cup resumption, the transformation in fortunes has been both rapid and dramatic.
The delight on the Italian's face showed just how much can change over a two-month period that has seen the seven-time Chinese Super League champions make the moves that have lifted their mood and reignited their challenge for a record-extending eighth straight title.
Before the break for the World Cup, Cannavaro's Guangzhou were being written off. Five points adrift in fifth place and playing stodgy, uninspired football, it seemed Evergrande's remarkable run of success was coming to an end.
Guangzhou had made their worst-ever start to a Chinese Super League campaign and Cannavaro was shouldering much of the responsibility. Just a few months into his second stint at the club, the 2006 World Cup winner could be forgiven for feeling a sense of déjà vu.
His first spell -- back in 2015 -- ended after just six months with the team sluggish and disjointed. His firing consigned Cannavaro to temporary unemployment while Luis Felipe Scolari restored the club to pre-eminence, winning the Chinese Super League and Asian Champions League titles by the end of the year.
Cannavaro's return in December -- having rebuilt his reputation with Tianjin Quanjian -- was always a risk, allied as it was with Guangzhou's aging squad and an apparent reluctance on the part of the club to invest in fresh foreign talent.
Paulinho's replacement with Nemanja Gudlej following the influential Brazilian's departure to Barcelona left Evergrande stodgy in midfield. Alan Carvalho has rarely looked consistently threatening in front of goal, while Ricardo Goulart has been unsettled since being denied a return to Corinthians after he was priced out of a move.
Realising a lack of investment was hurting the team, club owner Xu Jiayin promised an overhaul of the squad and, during the World Cup, delivered a one-two punch that saw Guangzhou make a statement of intent.
The return of Paulinho after a season in Barcelona has restored the drive and intensity that had been missing once the former Tottenham midfielder left for Camp Nou in August last year. Without him, Guangzhou crept over the finishing line last season. This year, there have been times when they barely moved out of first gear.
With 38-year-old captain Zheng Zhi growing slower by the day, Paulinho has slipped right back into a familiar set-up and has restored drive and desire to the heart of the Evergrande team.
His goal in Sunday's win was his first since his return; it's unlikely to be his last given his track record from his initial stint in China. But for all Paulinho has done to lift the mood at Tianhe Stadium, the real revelation looks to have been the capture of Talisca.
Five goals in his first two games only tells part of the story as the threat Talisca provided across the entire attacking line left the defences of both Chongqing and Guizhou Zhicheng chasing shadows.
While nominally a left winger, the 24-year-old has carried a significant threat on both flanks and behind Goulart, who has been operating as the central striker. His pace has caught the eye, but it has been the variety of goals that have highlighted why some of world football's biggest clubs have been linked with the Brazilian.
For now, though, he's on Evergrande's books -- on loan from Benfica until the end of the season. His arrival is another positive aspect of Paulinho's legacy, the midfielder proving that a move to China is not necessarily the death knell for an ambitious player's career.
Talisca, with his bleached hair and ubiquitous presence, has already been christened the "Canton Tower" by fans in honour of the structure that dominates the Guangzhou skyline. And although he has been in domineering form so far, he has told fans to expect even more.
While Evergrande still trail leaders Beijing Guoan by five points -- they have a game in hand over the table-toppers after their meeting with Shanghai SIPG was postponed last week -- the signs are already ominous for the rest of the Chinese Super League. Anyone thinking the champions would give up their crown without a fight have been forced to think again.