ACL insider: Reds can expose Shandong’s mentality

Adelaide United may be able to exploit Shandong Luneng’s mental fragility in their AFC Champions League qualifying play-off tonight at Hindmarsh.

Shandong are China’s most consistent ACL representative – they are aiming to play in the group stage for the ninth time – but according to Chinese freelance football journalist Liang Dapeng, new coach Mano Menezes has to improve their psychological fortitude.

The Big Issue

The past two years have seen Shandong fail to progress from their group in Asia’s premier club competition.

On both occasions, the Chinese Super League (CSL) club were still in the hunt for a berth in the Round of 16 heading into the final matchday but lost – 2-1 at home to Cerezo Osaka in 2014 and 4-1 away to Jeonbuk Motors in 2015.

In fact, the last time Shandong advanced to the knockout stages of the ACL was in 2005.

Shandong Luneng.

“You can say they have some mentality problems when they face a tough team in Asian battles with high pressure tempo,” Dapeng told Goal Australia.

Another concern for the visitors at Coopers Stadium will be their lack of match practice.

“The biggest issue in the team so far is they haven’t got normal form as the Chinese Super League season starts in March,” Dapeng said.

“They have a new coach in Mano Menezes and a new main defender in Gil, plus a new tactical request. Players need time to know what the new Brazilian coach is asking for.”

The danger man

Dapeng doesn’t hesitate when asked to name Shandong’s most important player.

“Walter Montillo is the best player in this team, he scored the first goal of the season against Mohun Bagan [in the ACL’s previous qualifying round],” he said.

Walter Montillo looms as the danger man for Shandong Luneng on Tuesday night.

“He is the brain of the whole team, and the most skilful player in Chinese Super League.”

Since arriving from Santos in 2014, Montillo has scored nine goals and notched 16 assists in 61 games for Shandong in all competitions.

The Argentine attacking midfielder missed a large chunk of games in 2015 due to injury but has won two trophies with Shandong – the 2014 Chinese FA Cup and the 2015 Chinese Super Cup.

Why could Shandong win?

Adelaide will need to maintain a high intensity and eliminate errors if they are to overcome Shandong.

Dapeng reckons the visitors have the quality to punish Guillermo Amor’s team if they give up possession in dangerous areas.

“The players’ quality at Shandong is better,” the former journalist said.

Shandong Luneng's Wang Tong celebrates scoring in last season's ACL.

“Apart from Montillo, Brazil international Diego Tardelli and Chinese striker Yang Xu, who scored against Australia at the 2013 East Asian Cup, are both threatening.”

Dapeng has also warned the Reds against trying to intimidate Shandong physically.

“With two Brazilian strong men [midfielder] Jucilei and Gil, Shandong won’t feel afraid if Adelaide play roughly,” he said.

Why could Shandong lose?

Apart from Shandong’s lack of resilience – “if they concede early, they will usually give up” according to Dapeng – the visitors’ other main weakness is their defence.

In 2015, Shandong finished third in the CSL despite having a defence that was only ranked eighth.

“The defensive line is far from perfect, they concede in almost every match,” Dapeng said.

“Even Mohun Bagan smashed the bar in the second half in Shandong’s latest game.”

With Adelaide having scored at an average of 2.6 goals per game in their last five matches, Amor’s men should be ready to capitalise on any errors made by Menezes’ defenders.