Going into this final Asian Champions League (ACL) group game I had hoped for an open and attacking contest since both teams had nothing to play for. Shenhua, coming off the back of a dissapointing 0-0 draw away to Changchun in the Chinese Super League last weekend, were already out. And with Suwon already through to the knockout stage, perhaps the players might relax so that the fans might enjoy an entertaining footballing spectacle.
How naive I was – the warning signs that it might be a meaningless and boring game were all in place, but I had foolhardily ignored them. The game turned out to be probably one of the dullest fixtures I have had the misfortune to take in at Hongkou Stadium. Despite Shenhua boss Xi Zhikang’s pre-match vow that he would “field all good players available in the match against Suwon”, Shenhua’s line-up infact contained largely fringe and youth players. Such a selection policy was justified since Shenhua were already out, but suggesting he would do otherwise before the match, well, that was just a classically Chinese face-saving comment.
Shenhua played like none of the starting XI had never played on the same team before, this was because that statement was largely true. It was a disjointed display completely lacking any fluency whatsoever, shocking the crowd with its sheer lack of any entertainment value of any description. Indeed, at half-time, quite a few fans decided they had already seen enough and left. All in all, Suwon looked a class above Shenhua and, despite getting the break of the ball for a couple of their goals, the final score of 3-0 did not flatter them.
As is sometimes the case at Hongkou, off-pitch entertainment over-shadowed play itself. Shanghai’s Blue Devil’s fan group chanting “fucking Korea” loudly and clearly at the couple of dozen Suwon fans perched in the upper north east corner. The highlight of the evening was the infiltration of said Suwon fans’ area by what appeared to be a pair of foreign Shenhua supporters. They waved a Shenhua playing jersey in the direction of the Blue Devils, who at first suspected the fans to be from Suwon. Only when the Shenhua fans started to beat a Suwon fans’ banner did the penny drop, and their antics were met with loud cheers and numerous songs.
Let’s be realistic, Shenhua were never going to get any kind of success in the ACL this year, they have a very poor record in it and that has continued this year. Shenhua can now concentrate on the league, where they have made a steady start and could yet prove to be title contenders.
Elsewhere in the ACL, it was meltdown for Shandong as they were tanked 4-0 by Cerezo Osaka of Japan, and crashed out of the league. That means Tianjin Teda are China’s sole representatives in the ACL knockout stage, with Hangzhou Greentown, like Shenhua, already succumbing to failure in the second last group match.
Ground: Hongkou Football Stadium, Hongkou District, Shanghai
Capacity: 35,000 (26,000 for football)
Honours: Chinese top-tier league champions: 1995
Chinese top-tier league runners-up: 1996, 1997, 1998, 2000, 2001, 2005, 2006, 2008
Chinese FA Cup winners: 1998
Chinese FA Cup runners up: 1995, 1997, 2015