This much-anticipated encounter was Lions’ last league fixture of the season with the predominantly French side only needing a draw to retain the title. Shanghai Marlins, meanwhile, only had to wait eight-weeks before a tough double-header against Sunday’s opponents and then Century Park. They knew that two wins from their last two matches would guarantee the title returned to a relocated Blue Marlin and they were mightily close to overcoming the first hurdle.
Having experienced a rare capitulation during the second-half of the corresponding fixture last November, the Marlins had a point to prove that even a Banksy clap-per-syllable couldn’t stress.
Both sides turned up with big squads given the importance of the match and hot temperatures at Jinqiao. Furthermore, the majority of the Marlins squad hadn’t played competitive 11-a-side football since the 12-0 victory over Galacticos in mid-March so tired legs and a lack of match sharpness were to be expected.
The prolonged spring time break did at least see Dale ‘100%’ Johnson return to action in a better shape than how Tom Ryan left him at the start of the year. The goalkeeper allowed previous stand-in Dave Watson to start at left-back and deliver a solid performance which included a mini-tantrum with his shorts temporarily below his derrière.
Unfortunately for the Marlins, the game got off to a bad start just two-minutes in when Lions scored their goal of the season. A short corner found the Lions’ player who took one touch before unleashing an unstoppable effort into the far top corner leaving Johnson no chance.
Before the 20th minute, Lions had doubled their advantage with a well-worked goal. Shanghai Marlins’ defence had caught a couple of players offside but their lack of interference with play allowed a late runner down the left channel who squared for the striker to finish from close range. The forward deployed a tactic which Ruud van Nistelrooy mastered, allowing him a head start on the back-tracking defenders.
Most teams would have downed tools when 2-0 down to an opponent who only needs a draw and won 7-1 earlier in the season. But Shanghai Marlins are far from most teams.
Steve Fishwick’s side grew into the game and came close on several occasions only to be frustrated by goal-line clearances, last ditch defending and the Lions’ goalkeeper. But 10-minutes before half-time, they were given a lifeline when captain Dan Griffiths was stupidly fouled from behind as he was running away from goal. James Moss stepped up to convert from the spot and claim his 14th goal of the season, making him joint-top scorer in the Shanghai Premier League.
The Marlins continued to push for an equaliser before half-time while Lions had one opportunity of note which Johnson did well to deny with his feet.
At the break, Fishwick was pleased with the response and confident they could turn it around. One of the central midfielders were encouraged to anticipate the second balls when crosses or long balls were played up to Gui Leclerq or Wilson Scott.
The boys in blue carried the momentum into the start of the second period and Moss nearly doubled his tally after great hold up play by Leclerq. The Frenchman rolled his defender and squared the ball for Moss’ run from deep but as the midfielder went to take his shot, the ball found the only bobble on a very good pitch which ensured the first-time strike failed to hit the target.
Griffiths pulled up with cramp and was replaced by Pete Rosselli with 20-minutes remaining.
Moments later, it was 2-2 after Rosselli slipped Leclerq through and the forward outpaced his marker down the right channel before squeezing in his shot at the near-post. Suddenly it was game on and the Marlins had their tails up.
Soon after, Leclerq saw a header saved while Rosselli should have been awarded a penalty after the Lions defender came through the back of him following a corner.
Shanghai Marlins had all of the ball and territory as the Lions struggled to get out of their own half or even string a few passes together.
They pressed for a winner but were guilty of rushing the final ball or not quite catching the breaks when needed.
Much to Lions’ relief, referee Kevin Doherty brought an entertaining and high-level match to an end, making Lions this season’s champions.
The disappointed Marlins squad left the pitch wondering how they failed to take the league title to the final game but were rightly proud of their efforts and response. This side possesses team spirit and quality in equal measures, and both of those were on display.
Next up is the final league game against Century Park on the less than favourable surface at Waigaoqiao before the League Cup quarter-final against ERS on 21st May.
Man of the Match: Wilson Scott
Despite a number of nominees for MOTM, it was the Bearded Magician who had the honour of a Long Island Iced Tea. Spurred on by the presence of his dad, Scott put in one of his best performances this season and was unlucky not to get on the scoresheet or provide an assist. He tested the keeper on several occasions as well as drilling a half-volley narrowly wide of the post. Hull FC’s – not his dad’s – biggest mistake also showed some typically deft touches in the final third and nearly provided one of the assists of the season with a volleyed pass over the top.
Both members of the Scott family enjoyed a Long Island as Mr. Scott was welcomed into the Marlins family providing he was willing to drink an unnecessary amount of alcohol.
In spite of the disappointing outcome, there were still over 20 people at club sponsors Blue Marlin enjoying the warm weather and Mossy’s inappropriately tight shorts. We can all have tree trunk thighs if the shorts don’t fit, fella.
Pete Roberts proved that sleeveless shirts are only allowed, if at all, off the pitch as Azz donned the unusual garment for Lions.
Meanwhile, Roberts and Jamie Lally were chauffeur driven back to Suzhou by a proud driver complete with name sign.
Still craving more beers, nine of the Marlins went to Cages in Jing’an to exploit the free beer until the first goal offer. Foolishly, they had Liverpool v Southampton and then Arsenal v Man Utd so the guys prospered during both games even though there was a half-time cut-off. Clearly a couple of Lions’ players had a similar idea if the rest of their teammates didn’t, adding further credence to the belief that there’s no better team to play for than the Marlins.
Come 1:00 a.m., Adam Christy and Rosselli went home leaving Griffiths to throw a bean bag into a hole with some strangers he had acquainted.