BUENOS AIRES (Reuters) - Shanghai Shenhua manager Gustavo Poyet has been pleasantly surprised by the standard of the Chinese Super League during his first season at the club, the Uruguayan told Reuters.
The former Sunderland, Real Betis and AEK Athens boss arrived at Shenhua earlier this year as part of a wave of high-profile coaches and players flooding into the CSL.
China hopes the influx will ultimately raise the standards of the local game to level of the elite but Poyet said the Chinese already played the game at a high tempo with their sights always on the opposition goal.
“I have been well surprised, there’s a lot of dynamic, the matches a quite open, lots of attacking, counter-attacking,” Poyet said in a telephone interview.
“You don’t see teams that only want to defend, from what I’ve seen so far,” the 49-year-old added.
“They think a lot about attacking, I don’t see a difference with the modern footballer anywhere else in the world. That’s a personal impression having been in England, Spain, Greece and here.”
True to his Uruguayan roots, Poyet has been concerned that his team also defend well, though, even if he thinks he is battling an international trend.
“There is a worldwide tendency among the young, there are very few who want to defend and for me, defence is part of the game,” he said.
“I‘m lucky here in Shanghai in having defenders of a certain age who are first of all defenders, who are helping me to defend.”
Settling into a new and different country is something Poyet, his marquee Argentine forward Carlos Tevez and other imports from the football heartlands of Europe and South America have had to face - and not just in their personal lives.
“One thinks that because (Tevez) is quality he’s going to come here and make the difference,” said Poyet, who played in midfield for Chelsea, Tottenham Hotspur and Real Zaragoza and won the 1995 Copa America with Uruguay.
“But the rhythm, the style, counter-attack after counter-attack, is complicated, you’ve got to adapt, slot into the good counter-attacks somehow because if not, you go crazy.”
Poyet said the initial boom period when players of the calibre of Didier Drogba and Nicolas Anelka went to China at the end of their careers has been overtaken by a new era with players being brought into the league in their prime.
He cited the example of 25-year-old Brazil forward Oscar, who joined local rivals Shanghai SIPG from Chelsea around the same time as Tevez joined Shenhua.
“If this plan can be maintained, it can become a spectacular league,” he said.
“It will be watched by the whole world and today it is already being seen much more than last year, now it is broadcast in South America, England and as more leading players come here the more it will get watched.”
Poyet is well aware that China’s ultimate goal in turning the Super League into a top level competition is to get the national team to a standard where it will qualify regularly for the World Cup finals.
Although Guangzhou Evergrande have won the Asian Champions League twice in the last five years, China have qualified only once for the World Cup in 2002.
They lost all three matches without scoring a goal in South Korea 15 years ago and hopes Marcello Lippi’s side might reach the 2018 finals in Russia have already all but disappeared.
“The ACL is one of the goals but I think the main goal is the national team, more than the clubs which is more local,” he said.
”As a country, what China wants is for the national team to qualify for the World Cup in a natural and constant way and they only got there once some time ago.
“And for that they need the league to improve, to be more competitive and that good players emerge constantly to the benefit of the national team.”
Poyet has long digested February’s shock loss at home to Brisbane Roar in an ACL playoff round, when Shenhua went behind after only two minutes and lost 2-0.
“What really hurt was the pile of inventions that came from it,” Poyet said.
”Especially an Italian journalist who wrote that Tevez was leaving and they could kick me out because there was a clause in my contract that said they could if we lost that match ...
“It was shameful.”
With Shenhua 11th in the 16 team league with one win in four games, Poyet has plenty of work to do if he is to achieve the season’s second objective, to qualify for next year’s ACL “directly, if we can”.
Editing by Nick Mulvenney