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New head coach at Shenhua – but is Zhu Jun still pulling the strings?

New Shenhua coach Dražen Besek has a tough task on his hands (Sina)

Little did Dražen Besek know that, as he walked out of Shandong Luneng’s provincial stadium after Shenhua’s final match of the 2010 season, as Miroslav Blazevic’s assistant, he would return to the same stadium in his first game as Shenhua’s new head coach just nine months later.

Shenhua lost 5-2 in Jinan on that day , as Shandong were crowned Chinese Super League 2010 Champions. Shortly afterwards, during the close season, the Blazevic and Besek coaching team left Shenhua to take over at the helm of China’s Olympic (under-23) squad.

However, Chinese national team appointments are always something of a poisoned chalice, and it turned out no different for  Blazevic, despite his long experience in the game, and he, and Besek, left shortly after a shocking defeat for the under-23 side to Oman. On his departure from China, he recently spoke of his love affair for Shanghai to the Chinese sports media. However, the fact that Shenhua owner Zhu Jun hired last years number two as a new coach instead of bringing Blazevic back speaks volumes about Shenhua’s state of financial destitution. Zhu Jun clearly doesnt have two mao to rub together right now.

That said, Drazen is an improvement on Xi Zhi Kang, who always seemed like nothing more than a caretaker manager, lasting just half a season in charge. However, looking at the line ups in Besek’s first three games, with midfielder Yu Tao still playing defence in the first two matches, and the tempremental and immature Dai Lin still captaining the side, one would could not tell there had been any change in Shenhua’s coaching lineup from looking at the team selection. Nor can you tell there’s been any change from the results – three defeats is the unimpressive opening account for Besek.

Your correspondent recently enjoyed a pre-match meal and drinking session with several long-standing members of the Blue Devil ultras, all of whom questioned the new coach’s ability to select his own team without interference from the egotistical and selfish owner Zhu Jun. Remember, this is a club owner who let his ego get the better of him and forced his first team coach to name him in the starting XI against Liverpool in a preseason friendly a few season ago. When you have people who allow their stupidity and ego to go before the good name and reputation of the club, the end result can only be bad. At any rate, its clear he is prone to dabbling in coaching matters and other areas where he should not.

Besek, who has signed a short-term contract up till the end of the season, really has a job on his hands turning things around and takes over the reigns during Shenhua’s darkest hour. He inherits a threadbare squad, a seemingly penniless owner, a dwindling and increasingly disillusioned home support, disharmony amongst the playing staff, a complete lack of morale, controversy over Shenhua playing home games outside Shanghai, and the feeling amongst the local population that Shanghai should be the city where its club can sign multi-million dollar South American stars such as Dario Conca, rather than real estate company backed-Guangzhou.

With the transfer windows now closed, Besek isn’t even able to make any new signings. This is unfortunate, because the squad badly lacks cover at the back, and is woefully short-staffed upfront. Against Shandong in his first game in charge, Besek didn’t even have one recognized striker to choose from – for reasons which one can only guess at, young striker Dong Xuesheng was loaned out to Shenzhen, where he scored a hat-trick at the weekend. All Besek can do is steady the ship and do his best to improve morale and turn things around before the end of the season. He needs to get Feng Renliang firing on all cylinders again to provide crosses and ammo to target man Luis Salmeron, and he should unleash playmaker Cao Yunding, possibly the only Shenhua player to emerge with any credit this season, to open up opposition defences.

But Shenhua’s biggest problem is at the back. Dai Lin is an excellent defender, but his petulance makes him wholly unfit to be captain. Besek should stamp his authority on the team and re-instate long-serving Yu Tao as wearer of the armband. If he continues to allow Dai Lin to retain the captaincy, this surely is proof of external meddling from above in team selection affairs – something which in your correspondent’s opinion,  should never, ever be tolerated anywhere at anytime.

However, Shenhua have shown signs of improvement under Besek. Against Henan at home last week, Shenhua were the far superior team in the first half, but low morale was probably to blame for fallingn behind in the second half. Their performance against Tianjin also did not merit defeat. With the season taking another mini-break to allow China to play two world cup qualificaiton matches, the team now has time to regroup and rethink its approach.

Shenhua need to dust themselves down and get back in the saddle before the season is out, the CFA cup is still to play for, regardless of its prestige value or lack of, it offers a way into next seasons ACL and that is where a club of Shenhua’s stature should be. Despite Shenhua’s numerous issues, they still have the makings of a top Chinese Super League team if they play to their strengths. Besek’s strength is that he knows the club having served as number two all last season. Now it’s time for him to make the side his own in what time there is before the end of the season.

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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