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CSL 2010 Review: A year of uncertainty

With the 2010 season having finished a month ago, and activity on Wild East Football grinding to a halt accordingly, its time to wrap up the season before its too late, with a look back, before we move our focus to next year.

For Shanghai Shenhua:

The season was on the whole a positive one for Shenhua. Expectations at the start of the year were low; the backbone of the team for the past few years had been sold, key first team players such as Du Wei, Gao Lin, Sun Xiang, Sun Ji, and Mao Jiangqing left amid something of a mass clearout. None of the pre-season signings were familar names, and the records of the foreign imports were unimpressive and did not inspire confidence.

So it was something of a surprise for all those of a Shenhua persuasion that the boys in blue found themselves five points clear at the top of the table just before the season broke off for the World Cup. Despite some shaky results in the first few games, the team had quickly gelled, young winger Feng Renliang stood out almost immediately as one to watch for the future and he quickly established himself as probably China’s most exciting up-and-coming talent. Columbian striker Duvier Riascos proved to be a shrewd import,  and veteran Croatian manager Miroslav Blazevic had the team playing a fresh and confident passing game. When the side came from behind to beat Beijing 3-2 in May one-third of the way through the season, confidence was sky-high and the feeling on the terrace was that this would be the year when Shenhua ended their 7-year drought without a championship trophy.

The players certainly looked to be enjoying themselves on the pitch, which is always a good sign, and crucially, the foreign contingent, particularly defender Ali Diab, Duvier Riascos and Jean N’Lend seemed to have blended with the domestic players very well. Before the break for the World Cup, the brand new team appeared to be playing like winners and not looking like the spiritless and complacent Shenhua of past seasons.

However, when the Chinese Super League resumed in July after a six-week break for the World Cup, Shenhua lost their momentum. Key midfielder and Chinese international Chen Tao abruptly joined Tianjin on loan amidst rumours of a bust-up with Blazevic, and Shenhua lost their first game back against Shaanxi. They then threw away a two-goal lead at home to Henan to draw 3-3, and, in what turned out to be the key match of the entire Chinese Super League 2010 season, Shenhua lost two late goals to go down 2-1 and lose to Shandong at home for the first time in years.

It was a blow which Shenhua never recovered from, and from then on in to the end of the season, Shenhua reverted to type exhibiting the usual flaws Hongkou sides tend to suffer from – namely a lack of determination and fight combined with an apparent lack of teamwork.

Shenhua lost silly games against relegation fodder at home, such as Nanchang, and generally became very inconsistent. Shandong pulled further and further away, winning game after game, before Shenhua finally lost any real chance of catching the leaders against – argh – Beijing, pressing the self-destruction button and losing 4-1 at up Gongti, a painful competitive end to a season that began with so much promise.

Shandong were around nine points ahead for the last six games or so, and did their best in the last month of the season to let Shenhua get back into it, but the Hongkou side again couldnt shake their habit of staggering over the finish line. Indeed, it was no surprise that Tianjin pipped Shenhua on the last day of the season to snatch the runners-up spot, despite Shenhua being six points ahead of the chasing pack as the run-in began.

Shenhua finally ended the season in dismal fashion, with a 5-2 drubbing away to Shandong who were crowned Chinese Super League champions that day.

So who stood out for Shenhua this season? Frankly Duvier Riascos’ goals carried the team – he hit the target 20 times to claim the golden boot award, and the Chinese Super League player of the year award. The fact Shenhua scored 44 goals all year gives an idea of how big Riascos’ contribution was. His delightful chip against Beijing back in May will go down as a special moment for many Shenhua fans for years to come.

As previously mentioned, Shenhua unearthed a real talent in Feng Renliang, already there is talk of him moving abroad, but I expect he will stay at Shenhua for at least another season to hone his skills, lest he rot in the reserves of some 2nd tier European team.

Syrian defender Ali Diab impressed with his spirit and generally solid play at the back, and Wang Dalei, when he wasn’t injured, looked committed to the cause and still might yet develop into one of Asia’s top goalkeepers – he’s still only 21. Jiang Kun performed solidly in midfield this year, putting his experience to good use, whilst the same could be said of captain, Yu Tao, who led the team well.

Meanwhile young midfielder Song Boxuan, who Shenhua acquired from 3rd tier side Tianjin Locomotive, along with Feng Renliang, showed a few flashes of promise.

Apart from these players, the rest of the squad seemed to be sadly lacking. Jean N’Lend looked decent enough, but he seemed to be injured for much of the season. Brazilian Vicente is frankly a pretty shocking footballer and not worthy of displacing a domestic player from the side. Reserve keeper Qui Shengjiong made horrific errors in more than one game (Beijing away and Shannxi at home spring to mind), whilst in general, Shenhua’s defence leaked too many goals – they conceeded 41 all told, leaving the team with a goal difference of just +3.

Despite almost throwing it away due to very poor end of season form, Shenhua did qualify for the Asian Champions League, after missing out narrowly last year.

In conclusion, what looked like a fresh new team with exciting domestic and foreign players ended up playing like Shenhua usually does by the time the season was out. One wonders if there is bad fengshui around Hongkou stadium or something.

Also, 2010 was supposed to be a year of rebuilding for Shenhua. But with charismatic and popular coach Blazevic set to leave after just one season in charge to take over China’s under-23 Olympic team, and top scorer Riascos ending his loan to return to South America, its unclear what, if anything, Shenhua will have to build on for next year.

For the Chinese Super League and Chinese football in general:

2010 was a year when a lot of shit hit the fan as regards the corruption scandals of the past few years. Indeed it looked as if just about everyone in the murky world of Chinese football was either hauled in for questioning, or had fingers pointed in their direction at some point. It is difficult even for the powers-that-be to get a clear handle on what wrongdoings may have occured over the past few seasons, so there is a limit to what a football blog can add to the debate.

From a very basic point of view, most of the major scandals have not actually not involved Chinese Super League teams, at least the guilty parties were not in the Chinese Super League when they committed their transgressions. The wrongdoings have involved sides in the China League who tried to bribe their way to promotion to the Chinese Super League by fixing games. This is why Guangzhou and Chengdu were relegated as punishment this time last year. Incidentally, both these sides won promotion back to the Chinese Super League this season. The goings-on this time around are broadly similar to the last huge huge scandal back in 2001/2002, the “black whistles” affair.

One positive that could be taken is that despite yet another wave of bad publicty for the league, crowds did not fall, averaging around 16,000 or so which compares well with most other world proleagues outside the elite European competitions. However, as always, the Chinese Super League did nothing to help fans make it to the game, scheduling some games in the middle of week day afternoons when most punters are stuck at the office. They also, yet again, exposed the league to ridicule.

This time, from their magician’s hat of bizarre tricks and stunts, they pulled a rule requiring 30-minute half-time breaks.

These extensive rest periods were implemented during the last two rounds of the season. The Chinese Super League claimed the measure was an effort to prevent match-fixing at a crucial point of the competition by making sure all games could start the second half simultaneously, but failed to explain the logic of how this would actually be effective.

With 2010 being a World Cup year, the Chinese national team’s continuing misfortunes were prominent in the Chinese people’s minds, many quite naturally lamented their country’s absence from the big football party in South Africa. So did most of the international media, who wrote gigabytes of text on articles covering the dire state of Chinese football. Almost all of these pieces lacked any real insight, and few made any useful contribution to the debate.

Again there were positives however, China defeated South Korea for, amazingly, the first time ever, to win the 2010 East Asia football championship, and also defeated France 1-0 in what was a World Cup warm-up match for the European side.

With the 2011 Asian Cup just a month away, China now have a reasonable chance to win back some pride at the continental championship. Whether or not they will come away from the tournament with their heads held high is another matter however.

A leading international commentator on Chinese football frequently quoted by the world's top media. Offers piercing and resolutely honest insights into the bustling crossroads where football, society, economics and politics meet in contemporary China. Based in Shanghai since 2005, observer of the Chinese game since 2000.

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