With the Chinese Super League season about to resume after its traditional mid-summer break, now is the time to take a look back at how the first half of the Chinese Super League 2011 has gone for Shanghai Shenhua so far.
It’s been a season of mixed fortunes for Shenhua. Basically expectations were fairly low at the start of this season, the boys in blue took a few games to get into stride as usual, then put together an impressive run of home victories including stunning last-minute wins against Shandong and Jiangsu, then fell flat on their faces with a record-breaking three game losing streak as the “Shenhua Summer Syndrome” kicked in as it tends to do around June and July each season. The Hongkou side currently sits joint sixth place, a whopping 16 points behind leaders Guangzhou and six points behind third-placed Liaoning, who occupy the last Asian Champions League (ACL) spot. There are 16 games down, and 14 to go – Shenhua have a lot of catching up to do if they want to get into Asia again.
Looking at the playing squad, Shenhua are probably doing as well as could be expected, considering the lack of investment which has gone into it. To understand this perspective, lets go back around 18 months or so, to when flamboyant owner Zhu Jun conducted something of a firesale at the end of the 2009 season, selling established and in some cases long-standing Shenhua first team regulars. Defender’s Du Wei, Sun Ji and Sun Xiang, and forwards Gao Lin and Mao Jianqing were all shown the door in a mass clearout which saw the club put its faith in youth. The basic argument from Zhu Jun was that he had lost patience with the core of the team, most of whom were regulars on the national squad, and that he felt a fresh influx of youth players would do no worse than the continued 2nd and 3rd places which Shenhua had been racking up since he took over in 2007.
So with the entire core of the team ripped out, last year, Zhu brought in wily old former Croatia coach Miroslav Blažević, and oversaw the capture of two inspired signings, Feng Renliang from 3rd-tier side Tianjin Locomotive, and Columbian striker Duvier Riascos. These three figures were central to Shenhua exceeding expectations and eventually finishing 3rd last year after matching champions Shandong for much of the way.
So at the start of this season, fans hoped that Shenhua might just be able to mount a title challenge based on last season’s year of squad reconstruction, especially considering Feng Renliang and Duvier Riascos were back. However, Blažević had left to coach the Under-23 team at the end of last season (he’s since been fired and spoken of making a return to Shenhua one day) and he was replaced with local coach Xi Zhikang, who has spent much of his career in a caretaker role and has a reputation of being something of a “firefighter”.
This appointment was a telling one which explains Shenhua’s current predicament in mid-table. Shenhua fans all know this drill by now – a big name leaves, but is not replaced with someone of remotely equal standing. It’s another example of something that is starting to become more and more aparent – the club’s lack of investment in playing and coaching staff.
This fact is all the more painful for Shenhua fans to swallow given the vast riches being pumped into Guangzhou Evergrande. Whilst the Cantonese giants were paying ten million dollars for last seasons Brazillian League player of the year Dario Conca during the summer break, Shenhua fans were left trawling the internet trying to find morsels of information about Eisner Iván Loboa. Not to say Conca was a household name either, but these two players’ pedigree couldn’t be more different – Loboa has made less than 25 appearances in his senior career so far for Deportivo Cali and Deportivo Pasto despite already being 24 years old.
Simply put, Shenhua’s squad is badly lacking strength and depth. On several occasions, injuries, suspensions and players being called up to the Olympic squad have left Xi Zhikang bereft of talent to put in the starting 11. There’s no better example of this than the constant appearance of veteran midfielder Yu Tao in defence, alongside Wang Lin or Dai Lin, whenever one of that pair is unable to play. Yu Tao is a solid and hardworking midfielder with a good passing range and quick-thinking ability. But he lacks the height or even build to be a defender. Why Shenhua doesn’t splash the cash on a quality central defender is beyond most fans. Syrian defender Daka was brought in on loan this season, but he only made a handful of appearances and he since left the club. And its defence which has let Shenhua down – the Hongkou side has shipped 19 goals this season – this is only surpassed by four other Chinese Super League clubs, all of which are in the bottom 5 of the Chinese Super League. The only bright spark at the back has been the form of Dai Lin, who is something of a Chinese Rio Ferdinand, playing the ball out of trouble and making maurading runs up the park. He’s surely the first name for the back four Xi Zhikang has on his teamsheet everyweek.
Columbian Juan Camilo Angulo has been one of the few sucess stories for Shenhua this year. He was supposedly signed as a fullback but he seems to spend most of his time attacking, in a wingback position or often even further forward than that. So his effectiveness in defence is limited by this. Elsewhere at the back,Wang Dalei has had a poor season for someone who once had a trial with Inter Milan. Perhaps its the lack of competition which is affecting him – reserve keeper Qiu Shenjiong has had a few outings – too many infact, he is not a professional standard keeper. He may be able to stop shots, but the rest of his game is poor and his decision-making ability awful.
In midfield, the most impressive player for Shenhua this season so far has been Cao Yunding. The Shanghainese play maker was signed from 2nd-tier side Shanghai East Asia in the close season and he’s emerged as the creative force throughout the entire team. His vision, touch and ability to make chances where none seem to exist have been key for the team so far this season. He may be pint-sized, but in his central midfield role, his strong running and excellent passing skills have made him the player of the season for your correspondent so far. Elsewhere in the middle, Jiang Kun is looking like he’s past it, the legs aren’t there anymore and he’s never been the most skillful, just a solid player who didn’t make many mistakes. Strangely, Argentinian Facundo Pérez Castro has been largely anonymous, despite being a regular on the first team sheet. Yu Tao has run things pretty well from a more defensive midfield position, when he’s actually been played in his natural position.
Upfront, Shenhua have been perhaps lucky to unearth Luis Salmeron, who currently sits atop the Chinese Super League scoring charts with ten goals. When he made his debut in the ACL at the start of the season, he looked overweight and sluggish. He’s since sharpened up and became one of the Chinese Super League’s most dangerous players. Just as well he’s been scoring – Duvier Riascos was not so effective this season compared with his 20-goal top-scoring year last year. He succumbed to that common Chinese Super League foreign player pitfall – thinking you are better than your team mates and hogging the ball. He left in the summer break but still left a huge impression on this year’s season – his last minute goals against Shandong and Jiangsu won’t be forgotten in a hurry.
We should probably include winger Feng Renliang in the forwards section. Like Riascos, he hasn’t quite hit the heights he did in his maiden season last year. But he still has the talent as his amazing goal on the road against Qingdao proved. There’s been much talk of him going to Europe soon – should he finish the season as strongly as he has the abilty to, his departure will be all but sealed. However, he needs to buckle down and work on improving his crossing and shooting. The speed and dribbling are there, but he’s far from the finished product.
So overall, Shenhua still have it in them to take something from this season by qualifying for the ACL. The title is well beyond them, and probably everyone one else, since Guangzhou are in pole position and racing ahead. But with Zhu Jun having kept his chequebook in his pocket and made no major signings in the summer break, the best Shenhua can hope for is third place – although the boys in blue have yet to face Guangzhou even once, so they may yet play a deciding role in the Chinese Super League title race.