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Sydney's late sucker punch floors Shenhua - Wild East Football
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Sydney’s late sucker punch floors Shenhua

Sheepish expressions as Shenhua trudge off the pitch. (Sina Sports)

Shenhua 2-3 Sydney FC. Reluctant to write about this Asian Champions League (ACL) match in great detail before seeing the highlights on the web, but they aren’t available as I write. So this report is very much fans-eye view, that is, from behind one of the goals with a lack of a clear view of the action at the opposite end (video highlights were up on youku by the time I had finished the post.)

Shenhua lined up with a few unfamiliar names on the team-sheet, striker Wen Huyi, signed from Changsha during the close season, appeared to be playing at left back. Youngster Jiang Jiajun was on the right wing in favour of Feng Renliang, who was again benched despite being rested against Shenzhen on Friday in preparation for tonight’s match, coach Xi Zhikang said on the ACL website the other day.

Despite the topsy-turvy looking lineup, Shenhua took control of the match right from the off. It took them just nine minutes to take the lead – Jiang Kun’s quickly taken free kick into the path of on-running Jiang Jiajun saw the young midfielder finish neatly by lifting the ball over the Sydney keeper to make it 1-0. Perhaps aware that the match had an international audience, the Blue Devils responded by doing “The Poznan” celebration, with all fans turning their backs to the pitch, linking shoulders and jumping up and down. The Sun, for once, does a good job of explaining something: their account of this odd celebration is worth reading.

Shenhua pretty much controlled the first half, Sydney didn’t play badly, but they struggled to keep possesion or mount any real attacks until a neat pass saw Brazilian striker Bruno Cazarine equalize for Sydney with a sublime finish, not long before half-time. Riascos then missed a great chance to restore Shenhua’s lead just after the re-start, but he ballooned his shot over the bar. Half time, 1-1.

The second half was a bit more even, Shenhua regained the lead when a cross into the box was headed into his own net by Sydney’s Scott Jamieson, under pressure from the home side’s Argentinan striker Luis Salmeron. But despite having the better of the play in the second half, what appeared to be some dodgy defending let Bruno Cazarine equalize for Sydney just before the hour mark.

From then on in, the match had draw written all over it, both sides huffed and puffed but just when it looked like the game was going to peter out into a draw, an injury-time shot from outside the box from Mark Bridge found the net and gave the Aussies all three points, sending the small band of Sydney fans in the upper tier of the west stand into ecstasy.

The final whistle was greeted by a chorus of boos by the Shenhua faithful, some of whom stayed behind to give the team a modest applause, but at the same time, a loud chorus of “Xi Zhikang, xia ke!” (Xi Zhikang, quit!) broke out. Indeed, his tactics were baffling, several players seemed to be out of position, and he waited until the 80th minute before bringing on Feng Renliang, one of Shenhua’s most dangerous players.

Aside from that, Duvier Riascos had a very poor game, hogging the ball and wasting numerous chances by over-elaborating when a simple quick pass would have been much more effective. Qiu Shenjiong again looked dodgy in goals, I suspect video highlights will reveal he made some costly errors. It wouldn’t be the first time, last year he handed Beijing several goals on a plate up at Gongti during a 4-1 reverse for Shenhua.

Overall, it was a rather strange game. Shenhua controlled much of the game, certainly the first half, and Sydney did not have many shots on goal but made the most of their chances. Certainly, I have seen Shenhua play quite a bit worse than this but win. However, Xi Zhikang’s eccentric selection and tactics look to me as if they turned a solid victory into a sickening defeat, and indeed the pressure is already on him, with seven games played in all competitions and just one victory so far.

In the other Group H match, Suwon drew 1-1 with Kashima. This means that Shenhua still have a chance to qualify if they win their remaining games against Kashima on May 3 (away) and at home to Suwon on May 10. That depends on how Sydney get on in their two games against these two sides though, and Shenhua’s odds are not short.

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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