Ivankovic's Shandong to the four
The curtain came down on the 2010 Chinese Super League season on Saturday, with champions Shandong Luneng rounding off their season in style with a 5-2 win over arch-rivals Shanghai Shenhua.
Under Croatian coach Branko Ivankovic, Shandong dominated this year’s Chinese title race, ultimately sealing their fourth domestic crown with two matches to spare. Winning the title with the Jinan-based outfit in his first season in China represented a major achievement for Ivankovic, who has now set his sights on continental success.
“All our efforts paid off,” the former Iran boss told FIFA.com after the Super League awards ceremony. “Now we should build on this success and we are aiming to do well in the 2011 AFC Champions League.”
Joining Shandong on that stage will be Tianjin Teda, who leapfrogged Shanghai to take second place thanks to a single-goal victory over hosts Henan Construction in the closing round. Despite losing to Shandong and allowing their grip on runners-up spot to slip, Shanghai will also be represented in the Asian club showpiece alongside fourth-placed Hangzhou.
Languishing at the bottom of the table are Chongqing Lifan and Changsha Ginde, both of whom will be playing second tier football next season. Replacing them, meanwhile, will be the promoted duo of Guangzhou Hengda and Chengdu Blades.
This story of this season’s Super League was the battle for supremacy between two Croatian coaches. With Ivankovic at Shandong’s helm, the greatest threat to his hopes of success came from fellow countryman Miroslav Blazevic, who had taken charge of Shanghai.
There was history in the relationship too, with these two men having worked together to take Croatia to the third place at the FIFA World Cup France 1998™, with Blazevic as head coach and Ivankovic in the role of assistant. On this occasion, however, it was the apprentice who triumphed over his master to clinch the national laurels.
That one of these Croatians would end up on top was evident from an early stage in this season, with Ivankovic’s Shandong leading the way and Blazevic’s Shanghai hot on their heels. A 1-0 loss to Shaanxi Chanba in the tenth round of matches saw Shandong temporarily concede top spot by a mere point, but they returned to the summit after winning the first of the season’s crunch matches against Shanghai.
From that moment, Shandong never looked back, winning seven out of their next ten outings to extend their lead to a ten points, a clear edge which nearly saw them disappear over the horizon long before the season concluded. Yet it was from a position of needing just three points from their remaining five fixtures that the leaders’ winning form abruptly deserted them as they were held to two successive draws. It looked like worse was to follow in the 28th round of matches when they went one down to Nanchang Bayi, but Julio Cesar de Leon Dailey fired home in the second half to earn another point and, with it, the Chinese title.
As for the beaten Blazevic, he was gracious in defeat, paying tribute to his former assistant. “We Croatians have a saying that ‘the world belongs to the younger generation’,” remarked the 75-year-old. “So it is no surprise that he eventually prevailed. We have good relations, but on the field we are hard contenders.”
From Ivankovic, 56, even in victory there was also a show of respect for his former mentor. “He and I are like father and son but we have showed our professionalism by competing hard against each other,” he said. “Respect should go to him as he is among the world’s best coaches.”
Other headline events in this season’s Super League included defending champions Beijing Guoan slipping out of the top four after to finish fifth and thus losing the chance to represent China in the AFC Champions League. There was encouragement, however, for eight-time winners Dalian Shide, who clawed their way back into the top six after several years in the doldrums.