People often ask me about why I watch Chinese football, my reply is always something along the lines of crazy atmosphere, being amongst dedicated hardcore fans, and that sometimes the quality of play is very good. The first two things are easy to spot by anyone who goes along to a game, however, witnessing quality play might require a few more visits to the stadium.
Last night’s game was the proof that Chinese Super League teams can deliver football of a high standard. I don’t exagerate when I say I could have been watching a match between two minor European Champions League teams. It was vintage Shenhua – emphasis on attacking, with short passing and getting the ball foward quickly. The game itself, including Tianjin’s contribution made for flowing link-up play, crisp accurate passing, solid defensive positioning, deadly marksmanship, creative playmaking and wing-wizardry. And funnily enough, one of the best Chinese Super League games I ever saw was also between Shenhua and Tianjin a few years ago – check out that game on youtube if you want to see some excitement.
As for the game itself last night, Feng Renliang’s speed and dribbling skills were the difference between the sides. Tianjin had an early chance when their attacker was one-on-one with Shenhua goalie Wang Dalei, the ball ended up being cleared to safety. But as the first half wore on, Shenhua played some of the best football I’ve seen him play. Lining up with a 4-5-1 and Riascos upfront on his own, Feng Renliang was rampaging down the left wing with alarming regularity.
Ball-playing defender Dai Lin started an attack from the back, passing to central midfielder Cao Yunding. His exquisite pass into the path of Feng Renliang set up a scoring chance for the Shenhua wonderkid, who cut inside his man to unleash a powerful shot which the Tianjin keeper had to look sharp to keep out. The ball was knocked out to the edge of the box as far as Cao Yunding, whoose first-time cross was deflected by Tianjin’s Serbian captain Marko Zorić into his own net for the opening goal in the 17th minute.
It took Shenhua just six minutes to add to their lead – once again Feng Renliang was the artichect, with a lung-bursting run down the wing, holding off his man to make it to the byline and deliver an easy ball for Riascos to knock into the net – 2-0 Shenhua, the home side on fire at this point.
By now, Feng Renliang was on fire, next in his reportoire was a cross to the back post which Juan Angulo narrowly failed to connect with. Not long after, another run which saw Feng dispose of multiple Tianjin defenders before despatching a low leftfoot shot on goal which the Tianjin keeper only just managed to keep out. Half-time, 2-0 Shenhua, and the banter at half time amongst our group of fans centred on how desperate we all were to get back inside for the second half.
Tianjin came into the game a lot more after the break, certainly having the better of the first 15 minutes or so. Shenhua looked less likely to score – suddenly it was Tianjin who were putting together all the moves. It wasn’t much of a surprise when Yu Dabao, the 23-year-old former Benfica striker, made the most of a loose ball at the edge of the box to lash home from about 25 yards for a goal of the month contender. A fantastic goal, even if it was against Shenhua.
The goal bouyed Tianjin were went in attack searching for the equalizer. Shenhua were by no means inept in the second half though, and should have put the game beyond doubt when, in a counter-attacking move, Riascos burst through the left side of Tianjin’s backline and made is way into the corner of the box. With three unmarked teammates waiting for a pass and a free shot on goal, Riascos continued his recent bad habit of hogging the ball and went for glory. His shot from a tight angle fell wide of the post. It was a a display of greed and selfishness and had Shenhua not won this game, he would have been unpopular in the dressing room.
Tianjin had some late pressure, and would have equalized were it not for Cao Yunding’s fantastic headed clearance off the Shenhua line, but the boys in blue held on for a hard-fought but deserved victory against last year’s runners-up and China’s sole representative in the knock-out stages of the Asian Champions League. Indeed, Shenhua’s fans chanted wei guo zheng guang (为国争光 – honour the country) in recognition of Tianjin’s ACL achivements so far. The mutal respect didn’t end there – both sets of fans (Tianjin brought 500 or so) chanted in unison Guoan SB (Guoan are cunts), both teams being Beijing Guoan’s hated rivals.
Shenhua have now beaten last year’s Chinese Super League Champions and runners-up at home in the still-early-days season, things are looking up after an uncertain start and awful ACL campaign. Check out the table and this weekend’s other Chinese Super League results in English on the FIFA homepage.
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