Shandong in third heaven
The 2008 Chinese Super League title race finished in dramatic style on Sunday as Shandong Luneng picked up their third domestic crown, despite a lacklustre goalless draw against visiting Guangzhou Yiyao.
Shandong entered the final round with a two-point edge over closest rivals Shanghai Shenhua, who faced what looked like an easy task against promoted Zhejiang Lucheng at home. Shandong failed to pose Guangzhou many problems throughout, and the result should have provided a golden chance for Shanghai, who were a goal up courtesy of Justo Rolando Meza after only nine minutes.
Zhejiang upped the tempo towards the break and levelled through Karim Benounes, but Shanghai responded, Cheng Liang heading home Xiao Zhanbo's cross on the stroke of half-time to restore their lead. The home side continued their dominance in the second half, but just as they looked to be cruising, Zhejiang hit back: teenage striker Tan Yang was on target 14 minutes from time to steal an unlikely point.
While the goal shattered Shanghai's hopes, the news sent the 40,000 supporters at Shandong Stadium into raptures. As the two games, which kicked off simultaneously, both ended level, it was Shandong who kept their two-point cushion intact to win the title.
"It would have been better had we capped the season with a win," Shandong coach Ljubisa Tumbakovic said, "but it was most important to win the title, and we made it."
It is the second time that Tumbakovic has taken the Chinese giants to the title in his five years in charge of the team, following his first success in 2006. He was not, however, the first Serb to win the hearts of Shandong's faithful. His countryman Slobodan Santrac first made a name for both himself and Serbian coaches in general by leading Shandong to their first league title in 1999.
But Shandong failed to maintain the momentum after Santrac left, and after years of struggling in mid-table, they renewed their faith in Serbian tactical acumen by signing Tumbakovic, under whom Shandong have finished in the top three for the past five years, claiming the league title twice.
Bora Milutinovic, another Serbian who made himself famous in China by taking the world's most populous nation to their first FIFA World Cup™ finals at Korea/Japan 2002, was full of praise for his compatriot. "He (Tumbakovic) told me the great news as soon as the game was over. I am so proud of him, because he is not only my countryman, but also my former team-mate with Partizan Belgrade," said the coaching legend.
At the bottom
Despite the heart-breaking defeat in the title race, Shanghai didn't finish the season empty-handed: their runners-up place earned them a place in next year's AFC Champions League alongside Shandong. Joining the top two in the continental competition are third-placed Beijing Guoan and fourth-placed Tianjin Taida, who were ensured a place at Asia's showpiece event as a result of the tournament's revamped format.
At the opposite end of the table, Liaoning were relegated to Division One in the last round despite their 3-2 win over Qingdao, joining Wuhan, who made an abrupt withdrawal from the Super League in early October.
The two teams who gained promotion to the top flight are Jiangsu Shuntian, who notched an incredible 19 wins out of 24 matches to finish top of Division One. Chongqing Lifan also sealed their progress to the Super League after their 3-2 win over Nanjing in the last round a fortnight ago.