Shanghai SIPG might be disappointed with their Chinese Super League season thus far, but Sven-Goran Eriksson and Co. are still dreaming big as they look forward to the AFC Champions League.
SIPG are third in the CSL standings, five points adrift of second-placed Jiangsu Suning and 12 behind defending champions Guangzhou Evergrande Taobao, who have a game in hand.
A combination of factors have derailed SIPG since they announced themselves by finishing second last term after working their way up from China’s third tier in 2006, with form, consistency and injuries hampering Eriksson’s men.
Dario Conca – once the third-highest paid player in the world behind Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi – has spent time on the sidelines, as has big-money recruit and Brazil international Hulk, who hurt his hamstring on debut earlier in July.
And while SIPG’s hopes of dethroning Evergrande are all but over, former England and Manchester City boss Eriksson insists there is still plenty on the line for the ambitious Shanghai juggernaut ahead of next month’s Champions League quarter-finals.
“We are not happy with what we have done. We should have a lot more points and should be higher up in the league, that’s the target and the big target of course is to play Champions League football next season,” the 68-year-old Swede told Omnisport, with his SIPG side level on 33 points alongside Hebei China Fortune.
“For a long time we have been struggling with injuries to top players, like Dario Conca and Hulk, so we are not happy.
“But the season is not finished yet and we are going to try and improve in the league. Hopefully play well in the Champions League.”
SIPG have lost two of their past three matches, including a last-gasp defeat to Shanghai Shenhua in the fierce derby earlier this month, while they also lost to Liaoning Whowin.
“I think the gap to Evergrande and top is too big,” Eriksson added.
“The big target before the season was to play Champions League football even next season and we have to fight for that.”
Though there are still league games against Guangzhou R&F, Yanbian Funde and Shijiazhuang Ever Bright to come, excitement is building as the Champions League quarter-finals loom.
SIPG – playing in Asia’s premier club competition for the first time – will face 2006 champions and South Korean giants Jeonbuk Motors in the last eight, which gets underway in Shanghai on August 23.
“It’s a big thing for us. Our first time to be in the Champions League and we are in the quarter-finals, so we are extremely happy,” Eriksson said.
“We will be fighting against one of Asia’s best teams. So we are looking forward to it.”
Although they boast Conca, Brazilian star Elkeson and China international Wu Lei, SIPG will be relying heavily on Hulk as they bid to finish in the CSL’s top three – with a third-place finish enough to secure Champions League qualification albeit via the preliminary second round – and qualify for the semi-finals in the continental competition.
Not to be outdone by the lucrative arrivals of Alex Teixeira, Jackson Martinez and Ramires during the off-season, SIPG showed their financial might with the signing of Brazil international Hulk from Russia for an Asian record, reportedly in excess of £45million last month.
Hulk scored nine minutes into his debut against Henan Jianye on July 10, only to hobble off 12 minutes later due to a hamstring injury.
Of Hulk and his short time in China, Eriksson said: “He’s had no problem settling into Shanghai. Everyone loves Shanghai.
“He probably came not ready but he should be fully fit soon. Playing without him and Conca is not good of course.”