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Happy ending: Shenhua stun Shandong at the death

Fantastic scenes last night. Shenhua scored a last-minute goal to beat defending champions Shandong Luneng 1-0 right at the death – and Hongkou erupted into a boiling froth of unrestrained celebration. In their last Hongkou outing, Shenhua were left reeling when Sydney FC scored a last-minute goal to snatch victory in an Asian Champions League clash. But this time, it was Shenhua’s turn to snatch victory right at the death, thanks to a goal from last years Chinese Super League golden boot winner, Duvier Riascos.

Shenhua lined up with what looked like a 4-5-1 formation, with Duvier Riascos prefered to Luis Salmeron upfront. The first half was fairly end-to-end stuff, but neither team really threatened or had many shots on goal. Shandong enjoyed more possession, but Shenhua looked busier and more threatening when they did get the ball. Shandong’s Chinese national team striker Han Peng had a good solid shot, but Wang Dalei, the Shenhua keeper, was well up to the task of holding it. Shenhua had a couple of penalty claims, but they looked dubious, indeed, the home side’s winger Feng Renliang was booked for diving. A sizeable Shandong contingent was at the game, more than 1,000 or so. They exchanged colourful banter with the Shenhua faithful, who chanted back in vintage Shanghainese fashion Xiangxiaren! (country bumpkins). Other crude, but amusing, chants were exchanged, as the off pitch banter rivaled the match itself.

Half time the teams went in very much equal, 0-0.

Shenhua players salute the Blue Devils after the final whistle

In the second half, Shenhua pushed a bit harder and the game became more attacking. In the 65th minute, a wayward crossfield pass from a Shandong defender was intercepted by Duvier Riascos. He spotted Jiang Kun’s run and found him with an accurate forward pass that left the Shenhua midfielder with just the keeper to beat if he could bring the ball under control. Jiang Kun’s first touch was good – but bizarrely, his second and third were not so and he completely bungled the chance. At this point, the game very much looked to be heading towards a 0-0 stalemate. Later, Columbian fullback Angulo shot from distance, but his shot sailed inches over the bar.

Shenhua were enjoying a spell of pressure, but time was running out. Argentinian midfielder Castro lofted a pass into the box which just eluded the head of a Shandong defender. It fell to Riascos who brought it down neatly on his chest, and he found himself one-on-one with the keeper.

From a fan’s point of view. It was one of those slow motion moments. Time itself almost stood still, as if the stadium clock had been showing 90 minutes forever. All eyes were on Riascos. I was willing him to just smash the ball past the keeper. But rather than pull back his leg in preparation for a powerful drive, he shaped his body for a placed shot. It did not look like the right choice given the angle of attack. He hit the ball with the side of his foot…. it curled slightly through the air. Three things had to happen for this to be a goal…. had it passed the Shandong keeper? Yes, but he got a touch on it, making the last two things more difficult. Was the ball low enough to pass under the bar? Yes it was. This left just one condition to be met for this shot to become a goal. As it sailed slowly, ever so slowly past the flailing keeper – would it land between the posts?

Good lord,  it did! Total mayhem broke out all over Hongkou – Shenhua had won it right at the death against last season champions and struck an important early blow in the 2011 Chinese Super League championship race.

Shenhua didn’t have to hold onto their lead for long. After the final whistle, the players made their way to salute the fans for their traditional victory celebration – goalkeeper Wang Dalei in particular savoured the moment, as did young Shanghainese midfielder Cao Yunding. With the goal only having been scored minutes earlier, this post-match ritual was more intense than usual. And as is customary at Hongkou for victories against rivals like Beijing or top Chinese Super League clubs like Shandong, the victory celebrations spilled out onto the street beneath the elevated metro line – boisterous scenes all round.

Summing up, it wasn’t a great game but clashes between top teams are often this way. Shandong didn’t really reserve to lose, but Shenhua maybe edged it for their attacking display in the second half. It’s very early days of course with only five games played, but Shenhua have now won three-in-a-row and if they continue to grind out results like this, they will soon fall into the  serious title contenders category.

Next home game is in the Asian Champions League against Suwon, on May 10.

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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