Wuhan Zall are fighting for survival in the Chinese Super League, desperate to avoid a heartbreaking conclusion to a year that began with them stranded outside their coronavirus-scarred city.
The football club from ground zero of the pandemic are embroiled in a relegation dogfight after going eight matches without a victory in the virus-shortened season.
Wuhan, who finished sixth of the 16 clubs last year, have collapsed after a promising start and must now beat Qingdao Huanghai over two legs. The first leg is on Thursday.
If they lose the tie, they will play a nail-biting relegation decider, with the beaten team dropping into China’s second division.
The winner could still get relegated, as they must then beat the team that finishes second in the second division to avoid the drop.
Pang Li, who stepped up to become coach when Wuhan suspended Spaniard Jose Gonzalez last month after a run of poor results, called football «a very stressful sport».
«For any player there is a certain amount of pressure, whether they are fighting for the championship or against relegation,» he said, after his side lost over two legs to Henan Jianye.
«We will encourage the players to relieve that pressure and play well in the next match.»
Underlining their problems in attack, Wuhan have picked up former Inter Milan and Newcastle United striker Obafemi Martins — who turned 36 on Wednesday — on a free transfer to help fire them to safety.
The Nigerian came off the bench and scored in last week’s second-leg 1-1 stalemate with Henan, but they lost the tie 2-1 on aggregate to slide closer to the relegation trapdoor.
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– ‘Not walking viruses’ –
– ‘Not walking viruses’ –
Coronavirus has upended sport worldwide, but it has been an especially turbulent 10 months for Wuhan Zall.
In early January they named Gonzalez to replace former Everton midfielder Li Tie, who left as coach to take over China’s national team.
But the city of 11 million people, where the coronavirus emerged late last year, went into a strict lockdown later that month — the first place in the world to do so.
The team were then marooned in Spain, where they were pre-season training, with Gonzalez pleading for understanding from his countrymen. «They are not walking viruses, they are athletes,» he told Spanish media.
However, as the virus took hold in Spain and international flights became disrupted, Wuhan struggled to return to China.
When they made it back to the country in March they were quarantined in the south, before finally returning to the reopened central city of Wuhan after 104 days on the road.
The players were given a guard of honour on the opening day of the season when they defeated Qingdao 2-0 in an emotional occasion for the club and its fans.
But they have won only four matches since and the 54-year-old Gonzalez paid the price.
Beset by injuries, Pang has failed to trigger a turnaround, with Wuhan in free-fall and yet to win under the new coach.
The Wuhan Evening News said that relegation was «cruel» because of the way the season, delayed five months because of the coronavirus, has been reformatted to make up for lost time.
Tianjin Teda failed to win in the first phase but a solitary victory was enough to secure their survival in the relegation knockout round.
However, Wuhan still need a sixth victory this season, over two legs, to stay alive.