With major investment comes considerable scrutiny and if the maxim that football has become merely a business holds true nowhere is that more evident than in China where boardroom brutality is the norm.
So it was that the pressure was intense when Shanghai SIPG walked out to face lower-table strugglers Shijiazhuang on Friday night to a backdrop of red banners emblazoned with the expression ‘fight to the end.’
The culmination of that battle may well be just around the corner for Sven-Goran Eriksson if the whispers doing the rounds are true.
FOX Sports Asia understands that the mandate – despite Friday’s 4-1 win – is clear and that’s progression from the Asian Champions League quarter-final whose first leg takes place on Tuesday when Shanghai host Jeonbuk.
Failure to do so is likely to spell the end for the former England manager with sources telling FOX Sports Asia that former Guangzhou boss Marcello Lippi has already been lined up to end his near two-year ‘retirement’ and take charge of the club.
It’s believed that the 68-year-old has already assembled the backroom staff he wants to bring with him in a sign of just how swift the move may be should the club tumble out of the ACL.
For now though Friday provided a small measure of relief for the club given they entered the match on the back of a run of three games without a win and indeed just one in their past five outings.
Having already crashed out of the FA Cup in late June and sitting outside the top three (and qualification for next year’s ACL) in the CSL the pressure was well and truly on.
Things started brightly when full-back Fu Huan controlled a long ball in the 10th minute, switched it from his right to his left and slotted past the visiting keeper to put Shanghai in front only for some woeful defending to see Shijiazhuang square things up 11 minutes later.
After a scuffle between the two teams, Dario Conca restored the hosts’ lead but injured himself in the process before an Elkeson penalty and a fourth from Wu Lei eased Shanghai to the 4-1 win – yet still the scrutiny remains.
Never mind that less than a decade ago the team was battling away in the Chinese third tier nor that until last year they’d never finished higher than fifth in the league nor even that this is their maiden ACL campaign the fact remains that the pressure is now ferocious to rise to the top.
With the arrival of new owners last season so the investment snowballed with the capture of Argentine wizard Conca being followed a year later by firstly Elkeson and then the headline act in the shape of Brazilian national star Hulk in a reported Asian record transfer of 55 million Euros from Russian outfit Zenit St. Petersburg.
The forward was injured though barely twenty minutes into his debut and after having not played since he remains a major doubt for Tuesday’s match, along with Conca who was stretchered off following his goal.
While Korean defender, Kim Ju-young, is expected to feature after being rested from Friday’s match if Eriksson is without two of his main attacking threats it makes Shanghai’s task all the harder.
Jeonbuk, along with fellow quarter-finalists FC Seoul, were given the weekend off from domestic duties allowing coach Choi Kang-hee to attend Friday’s match and the 2006 ACL champions have been in imperious form, not having lost a single league match all season.
Both clubs struggled though to initially get out of their groups in the continental competition and subsequently battled in the Round of 16 – Shanghai needing a 91st minute Wu Lei goal to see them progress on away goals whilst Jeonbuk toiled hard to eventually see off Australian side Melbourne Victory 3-2 on aggregate.
Now, in the glare of the continental spotlight, will come the most serious test to date for both clubs but it’s clear which of the pair is under the greatest pressure heading into the first leg.
If Shanghai are able to put aside their wobbling form and likely absences and progress past the best Korean has to offer then they may well take the confidence from that and ride it all the way to the final.
If not, then a certain former World Cup winning manager may just be riding back to China to take the reins at one of the country’s biggest clubs.