Longtime ACL participant Shandong stands in Kaya Iloilo's way in opener

Marouane Fellaini begins his farewell tour for Shandong in the AFC Champions League against Kaya Iloilo. Xinhua (file photo)
By Kokoy Severino

MORE than half the AFC Champions League tournaments held since it was rebranded in 2002 have featured Shandong Taishan, the first opponents of Kaya Iloilo, the Philippine representatives in Asia’s premier continental club competition.

The second-most dominant club in China’s pro ball system, this is Shandong Taishan’s 11th appearance in the AFC Champions League.

Shandong has won the Chinese Super League title four times.

They were the last team to have won the CSL before Guangzhou Evergrande started their outrageous seven-season streak of championships from 2011 until the financial crash of 2017.

Up until that point, Shandong had the most top-two finishes since the CSL’s inception in 2004.

In China’s FA Cup competition, Shandong holds the records for most final appearances with 13 and most championships with eight.

The northeast China club qualified for the 2023 AFC Champions League in two different ways–by winning the 2022 FA Cup, for the third year in a row, and by finishing as Super League runners-up.

Despite their domestic success, Shandong has underachieved at the continental level.

Over their previous ten qualifications, the Tai Mountain comrades have posted a record of 27 wins, 15 draws, and 27 defeats on their way to one quarterfinal berth, the deepest they have ever reached in the tournament.

Shandong is definitely looking to improve on their 2022 performance when they posted their worst Champions League results ever, fielding a roster depleted by Coronavirus restrictions–zero wins, one draw, and five losses, scoring only two goals and conceding 19.

And this was after qualifying for the ACL by winning their domestic double, finishing as champions of both the Chinese Super League and the FA Cup.

To bounce back from such an atrocious performance, we can be quite certain that when Shandong hit the artificial Rizal Memorial Stadium turf on Tuesday night to open the 2023 campaign, they will be in full attack formation, intent upon piling on the goals and showing no mercy.

Kaya Iloilo tries to play spoiler early into Marouane Fellaini's last ride

Leading the Shandong attack is their most globally recognizable player, former Belgian international Marouane Fellaini.

Sporting his signature ethnic Moroccan afro, Fellaini spent 12 seasons in the English Premier League, making a combined 354 appearances for Everton first and then Manchester United where he won a handful of trophies.

He was instrumental in Belgium’s 2014 and 2018 World Cup campaigns, reaching the knockout rounds in both and finishing third in Russia.

After the 2018 World Cup, he retired from national team duty, cut his hair, and signed a multi-year contract with Shandong, well away from the pressure and scrutiny drawn to the center of Manchester United, one of the world’s most storied football organizations.

Fellaini made himself at home in the midfield of the perennial Chinese Super League contender, helping Shandong get to the ACL round of 16 in his first season, and going on to tally 44 goals in 124 appearances for three domestic trophies.

Now 35 years old, the Belgian legend has just announced his plan to leave Shandong at the end of the current season.

In the same announcement, Fellaini expressed his full intent to give everything he can to win as many trophies as possible in his last run, which would undoubtedly increase his one-million Euro transfer price tag.

His 10 domestic goals this season are proof enough that he means business as the first AFC Champions League match date approaches.

But Fellaini is not the only scoring threat Kaya Iloilo needs to closely mark.

After three years with Portuguese side Santa Clara, Brazilian striker Crysan joined Shandong at the beginning of the 2022 Super League season and went on a rampage.

In his first season in China, Crysan hit the net 25 times in just 32 matches, the second-highest individual total in the league.

It appears his momentum has carried into the 2023 season, chalking up a club-leading 11 goals in 18 appearances.

His current figures are not quite on par with last season, leading one to believe he will land in Rizal Memorial particularly hungry for a goal.

The same year that Fellaini arrived in northeast China, fellow midfielder Moises signed on after four seasons with Palmeiras, with whom he had twice won the Brazilian Campeonato Brasileiro Série A.

Before that, Moises earned some silverware in the Croatian top flight with Rijeka.

Together, the two veterans have combined for 62 goals at Shandong.

Moises’ most dangerous quality however is his midfield creativity, finishing the 2022 campaign with the highest assist total in the league, and continues to lead the club with eight in the current season.

Defensively, Shandong is anchored by veteran China international goalkeeper Wang Da Lei, who has posted some impressive numbers in league play.

Conceding only 21 goals in 24 matches for a 0.88 average, Wang has recorded nine clean sheets, helping Shandong maintain the second-best goal differential in the league and the fewest goals against.

Wang may look familiar to some Azkals followers, as he presided over the 8-1 thumping of the Philippines by China in a 2017 friendly.

Of course, Wang must give credit to his defensive unit, which packs a ton of international experience, fielding five national team players in their back rotation.

Those same five defenders have logged over at least 1,000 minutes each in AFC Champions League pitch time.

Led by veteran center-back Shi Ke who has seen action in 36 ACL matches for over 3,000 minutes, and left-back Zheng Zheng with 34 appearances and more than 2800 minutes.

Despite these numbers, Shandong Taishan has struggled to replicate their Super League performance in the Champions League.

With Fellaini’s impending departure, and over a third of their entire lineup past 30 years old, 2023 will be Shandong’s last crack at making it past the ACL quarter-finals before having to reconfigure their midfield.

With a few formidable obstacles on the road out of Group G, it will be tough going for Fellaini and company though, with or without his afro.

Just because Kaya Iloilo doesn’t have the star-studded lineup of their opening Champions League opponent doesn’t mean they can’t make a game of it.

From what I have seen, the most important quality for Philippine football is a drive and conviction to persevere against all odds.

It’s that drive that keeps us on the road towards progress and improvement, a road we have been on steadily and visibly.

Kaya Iloilo is one of the most successful professional football outfits in the Philippines.

The organization sprouted up in the 1980s from a group of players who gathered regularly for pickup games on the grounds of a prestigious international school in the capital.

By the mid-1990s the community was ready to formalize this gathering into a full-fledged competitive team and entered the various competitions in existence at the time in an economically underdeveloped country where soccer had taken a backseat to basketball, boxing, and cock-fighting as the main commercial spectator sport endeavors.

The late Rudy del Rosario, former Philippine national team captain and one of the club founders, cited Bob Marley and the Wailers’ song “Kaya” as the inspiration for its name.

In 2010, Kaya Iloilo became one of the original teams in the inaugural United Football League, established as the country’s top flight until it folded at the end of the 2016 campaign.

In the seven seasons the UFL operated, Kaya Iloilo twice finished as runners-up and came in third once.

Where the UFL left off, the PFL took over, and Kaya Iloilo’s run continued, taking second in the table for three successive seasons until this last one when they finished as champions.

In the Copa Paulino Alcantara, Kaya Iloilo is the only club to have played in every final since its inauguration in 2018, bagging the trophy outright twice.

At the moment, Kaya Iloilo is on track for another serious challenge to recapture the CPA trophy, undefeated after four matches, bulldozing through their group with a 35-1 goal differential that will likely grow in the remaining ties.

Kaya Iloilo is more than a worthy Philippine representative in Asia’s most prestigious continental club competition, and one of the very few teams in the country I would put up against the likes of Fellaini, Moises, Crysan, and Wang.

Newly appointed head coach Colum Curtis is looking to continue his successful run in Southeast Asia.

After guiding Svay Rieng to the 2019 Cambodian league championship as an assistant, Curtis took over at Visakha FC who lifted the Hun Sen Cup for the first time in club history.

Now at Kaya Iloilo, the former Northern Ireland youth international is seeing his third club in the Asian continental competition system.

He inherits a squad of top domestic pedigree, many of whom are at the peak of their respective careers.

Kaya Iloilo's Daizo Horikoshi beneficial for PFL

If Kaya Iloilo has an answer to Moises, he would have to be offensive juggernaut Daizo Horikoshi, whose 21 goals and 20 assists last season were key to the club’s first PFL championship.

The Japanese striker and playmaker will have to be at his creative best to crack Shandong’s experienced defensive line.

Horikoshi transferred to Kaya Iloilo in 2019 after a season with Albirex Niigata’s Singapore League franchise.

He clearly found his form last year earning him the Golden Ball award in the League and the Golden Boot in both the League and the Copa.

At just 26 years old, Horikoshi still has several years left at his peak.

It would be good for the Philippine club system if he stays a while.

Also approaching the peak of his career is 26-year-old winger Jarvey Gayoso, who has scored 16 goals in 32 total appearances for Kaya since 2022.

Back in college, Gayoso tore up nets in the UAAP, scoring 50 times as an Ateneo de Manila varsity forward from 2015 to 2019, foreshadowing a promising pro future.

In the current Copa tournament, he has averaged one goal per appearance.

With 12 national caps, Gayoso is currently the most expensive product of the Philippine development system playing domestically which is still in his 20’s, valued on the market at €150K.

Kaya Iloilo’s defensive line will have to stay particularly disciplined and organized against Shandong.

This is where guys like Akito Saito and Audie Menzi will be critical in disrupting Crysan’s drives.

Each still in his mid-20s, Kaya Iloilo will count on their speed and quickness to get back in a hurry in transition from an offensive shape.

Just acquired in August from Aizawl in India’s top flight, Saito is a youthful addition to Kaya’s defensive ranks.

Benguet-born Audie Menzi was already logging minutes for Kaya Iloilo during the UFL days while still at Far Eastern University, where he won a national collegiate title in 2015.

Now at 28, Menzi has already seen two AFC Champions League campaigns with Kaya Iloilo, scoring the winning goal in a play-in match against Shanghai Port in 2021.

The Filipino international’s experience will go a long way in settling down and digging into Kaya Iloilo’s defense.

New Kaya Iloilo recruit Abou Sy can beat Marouane Fellaini

Senegalese forward Abou Sy transferred from Stallion Laguna in August and made an immediate impact, tallying six goals and three assists in four Copa matches thus far.

When observed from the stands, Sy is the hardest-working player on the pitch, all over the forward and middle thirds for Kaya Iloilo.

At 27 years old, Sy displays the combination of physicality, work rate, intelligence, athleticism, and talent necessary to harass Fellaini enough to neutralize him in the middle of the park and spark Kaya Iloilo’s quick-counter transitions, which is pretty much the bread and butter of every club in the Philippines’ top tier and below.

And that is the stage Philippine clubs are at right now in their evolutionary strategic development. Kaya Iloilo is great at full-on transition surges once possession is gained.

The disadvantage of this is it is impossible to sustain that kind of offensive pace for 45 straight minutes without slowing down at about the 25-minute mark.

At that slower pace, teams need to maintain longer possession of the ball, establish a rhythm, and conserve energy.

Philippine clubs, even the best of them, are still not yet accustomed to making the necessary adjustments to play a more possession-oriented game.

Even at that slower pace, teams in the Copa are still implementing a constant fast-break offense.

Kaya Iloilo might need to go Italian to beat Shandong

Against a team such as Shandong, Kaya Iloilo may have to apply an Italy-style strategy, allowing the opposition to possess the ball while they keep their defensive shape compact and solid, patiently looking for the slightest turnover opportunity.

In being more energy-efficient, Sy, Horikoshi, Gayoso, Menzi, and company can burst out upon recovery of the ball and go full speed on the break, which is what they do best, and do it effectively even late into the half.

In what would seem counter to one’s intuition, the Iloilo club’s thorough dominance in the tournament named after their province’s most beloved football hero may actually work against them in the AFC Champions League.

With a plus-34 goal surplus in just four matches, the narrowest margin being a 7-0 perforation of Loyola, Kaya Iloilo’s Copa Paulino Alcantara opponents are not helping much in their preparation against more competitive sides at the continental level.

By contrast, Shandong’s last four games as of this writing also see them undefeated, but by significantly tighter margins, including an FA Cup quarter-final win in penalties over Beijing Guoan.

But then again, the comparatively lighter schedule may also work in Kaya Iloilo’s favor, allowing them to save their much-needed energy for their big league matches coming up.

In that regard, let’s hope Qingdao Hainiu gave Shandong a harder game than Saturday night's 2-4 result might indicate in the Tai Mountainmen’s final Chinese Super League tie before crossing the West Philippine Sea.

A win over Shandong would make two in a row against international opposition by a Philippine squad, something rarely seen at Rizal Memorial since the mid-20th century.

That would be uniquely special not only for the five Kaya Iloilo players in coach Michael Weiss’s national selection that claimed a historic victory against Afghanistan last Tuesday but especially for the raucous festive home crowd, of which I will be one.

Kokoy Severino is a career educator, nationally certified youth soccer coach in the United States, and executive officer of the Football for Peace Movement in the Philippines.

The views and opinions of the writer do not necessarily reflect those of Dugout Philippines.

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