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Shenhua kick off 2011 campaign with Japanese ACL clash

Shanghai Shenhua get 2011 off to a start tonight at Hongkou Stadium with an Asian Champions League fixture against 7-time J-League champions Kashima Antlers, in a game which pits two of China and Japan’s finest club sides head-to-head.

The clash tonight will see debuts for Shenhua’s new foreign contingent – Columbian defender Juan Camilo Angulo, Argentinian forward Luis Salmeron his compatriot, midfielder Facundo Perez Castro and Syrian international defender Abdulkader Dakka.

The question on everyone’s lips at this time of year of course is how will the coming season unfold for Shenhua. Well, it’s a little difficult to predict – last year’s unexpectedly good showing was based on three key figures – manager Miroslav Blazevic, 20-goal Chinese Super League golden boot winner Duvier Riascos, and China’s hottest new football protege, winger Feng Renliang. Of the three, Riascos and Feng remain, but Blazevic, the colourful Bosnian Croat, has left to coach China’s olympic football team. In his place comes Xi Zhikang, who has been promoted internally from with in the club, having been assistant manager last year.  He formally coached Shenzhen and has been on the Chinese coaching scene for many years, but not a great deal is known about him.

So with the new boss being something of an unknown quantity, and none of the new foreign players being household names, this makes predictions for tonight’s match, and the season as a whole, pretty tough. I also have a sneaking suspicion Riascos is not going to have as good a season this year as last – he has a lot to live up to. Feng Renliang should continue to develop and shine however. But none of the above factors are enough to make Shenhua Chinese Super League favourites, although I would predict a top 4 finish.

For tonight’s match though, Shenhua will hope to follow on from the success last night of their fellow Chinese Super League teams in the ACL. Hangzhou, managed by former Shenhua favourite Wu Jinggui, pulled off an impressive 2-0 victory over 2010 J-League champs Nagoya Grampus, in their first-ever ACL match. Tianjin completed a rare ACL double-whammy for China with a 1-0 win away to Korea’s Jeju United.

Elsewhere tonight, last years Chinese Super League champions Shandong Luneng take on Korea’s Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors.

Shenhua coach Xi Zhikang is confident about Shenhua’s chances tonight, he tells the ACL website. Lets hope his optimism is well-founded, since Shenhua’s record in the ACL is unspectacular at best.

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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