A tale of two Croats
© AFP

Shandong Luneng won Wednesday’s top-of-the-table Super League contest with a thrilling 2-1 win at Shanghai Shenhua but the Chinese national derby this time had a strong Croatian flavour. Guiding the host side this term is former Croatia, Iran and Bosnia-Herzegovina coach Miroslav Blazevic, while his opposite number is none other than long-time coaching partner Branko Ivankovic.

The pair shot to worldwide prominence at the FIFA World Cup France 1998™ when they worked together to lift Croatia to a stunning third place finish in the nation’s debut at the global showpiece. Blazevic, of course, claimed the majority of attention as head coach, but Ivankovic also collected plaudits as his assistant. The partnership continued with Iran in 2001 but after Blazevic was ousted following Team Melli’s failure to qualify for Korea/Japan 2002, Ivankovic assumed the reins. This time the apprentice surpassed the master by successfully leading Iran to qualification for Germany 2006.

Seemingly more by coincidence than design, the pair last year signed for two of China’s traditional powerhouses. The 75-year-old Blazevic linked with two-time champions Shanghai, while Ivankovic, 19 years younger, went to Shandong charged with guiding the club to a fourth league title.

Going into this week's meeting, Shanghai led the 16-team competition, a point clear of Shandong with Blazevic believing his side had every reason to be confident of building on their good run with a win against his erstwhile partner. “I worked with Branko together for nine years and I know well what he is thinking,” he stated pre-match, adding further intrigue to what was already a much-hyped encounter. “I am familiar with his tactics so our players can focus on their performance.”

Student beats teacher
Ivankovic approached the match not only anxious to make his name in the Chinese Super League by winning the high-profile contest, but at the same time get one over his old friend. The pair had met once previously in less intense surroundings with Ivankovic getting the better of his mentor in guiding Iran to a 2-1 friendly victory against the Blazevic-led Dinamo Zagreb in 2003.

This time around the old Chinese saying, “Students beat teachers”, proved to be apt once again as Ivankovic prevailed in what was a tight contest. Jiang Kun put Shanghai ahead after 66 minutes when he lobbed onrushing goalkeeper Yang Cheng but the lead lasted just ten minutes with Shandong's giant striker Han Peng outjumping the defense to equalise. The decisive moment of the match came with nine minutes remaining with Deng Zhaoxiang's free-kick deflected by a Shanghai defender into the path of Li Wei who gleefully tucked away the loose ball to seal three crucial points and top spot for Shandong.

“I am happy we obtained the important win to take the league’s first place at the expense of Shanghai,” the softly-spoken Ivankovic told FIFA.com. “We have gone through many tough battles to reach the top and the result comes as further motivation for us to win the games to come.”

The three points ensured Shandong are midpoint champions but with his side hotly-tipped favourites to win the league, the 56-year-old sounded a note of caution. “It is premature to predict the winners as we are just half way there. There are more difficult games waiting for us and we must focus on the next match.”

Despite the disappointment, the loss did little to dent Blazevic’s hopes of winning the title. “Shandong are the better side today and they deserved the victory,” he concluded, “but although we are a young team our players played well, and this defeat won’t prevent us from working hard to win the championship.”