Did you hear that loud blowing noise on Saturday night? That was the sound of thousands of Shanghai Shenhua fans breathing a sigh of relief as, at long last, their side won for the first time in ten games, and banished the lingering spectre of relegation.
The game was barely 5 minutes old when Luis Saleron put himself back ontop of the Chinese Super League scoring charts with a powerful downward header from Juan Angulo’s cross which nestled into the back of the Shaanxi net. Unfortunately, for the third time this season, your correspondent missed a Shenhua goal due to being outside the stadium finishing off an alcoholic beverage. The early goal however steadied Shenhua who went on to enjoy most of the pressure in the first half.
As always when Shaanxi come to Shanghai, there is the added sideshow of Inter Shanghai fans turning up in blue and white striped shirts to support Shaanxi. Inter moved to Xian, Shaanxi province’s capital, in 2006 after duelling with Shenhua during the first half of the 2000s, but a rump of Inter fans haven’t forgotten their hatred for Shenhua. “Jiangsu, Zhejiang, Shanghai wolves fan club” (江浙沪狼球会) said a banner draped in front of the away support, in reference to local fans of Shaanxi AKA the northwestern wolves.
No matter what is said about Shenhua’s shocking one-point-from-27 run, its not possible for a team of their calibre to go through such a bad patch without bad luck being a significant factor. What goes around comes around however – good luck was the key ingredient behind Shenhua’s second goal, when another Angulo cross into the box was met by the head of Australian defender Dino Đulbić who headed a magnificent own goal past his own keeper to put Shanghai two goals to the good. Shaanxi had a few attacks, most notably when Scottish forward Derek Riordan, signed in the summer from Edinburgh club Hibernian FC, hit a well-placed low shot towards the Shenhua goal. Home keeper Wang Dalei was out of position, but he managed to beat the ball to safety. But that was about it for the first half. Finally, Shenhua were getting the breaks – half-time, Shenhua 2-0 Shaanxi.
As is so often the case, the second half was a different game. Shenhua started well, with Jiang Kun’s dangerous volley from the edge of the box going just over the bar, but the Hongkou side, as usual, lost their way a bit and it was no surprise when Shaanxi, who had been looking dangerous all half, scored via Qu Bo who finished a parried shot from close range. Shenhua fans by this point were beginning to fear a victory that looked in the bag was about to be cruelly snatched from their grasp once again.
The home side responded with a couple of forgaging attacks, an absolutely exquisite Jiang Kun pass put Wuxi through on goal but his shot was blocked by the keeper. Later, playmaker Cao Yunding completed a great run to the edge of the box and turned inside his marker before releasing a low shot to the right, but the Shaanxi keeper parried it around the post.
Shenhua were still skating on thin ice though, and disaster almost struck five minutes from time when Shaanxi had the ball in the net, only for the effort to be chalked off for offside. Talk about a relief.
The last five minutes of the game seemed to last for an eternity, but with almost the entire stadium willing the referee to blow his whistle, he did just that and Shenhua ended their worst ever run of results in their history with a victory for the first time in 10 games. Dražen Besek joined his team on the pitch for a victory salute in which relief, rather than joy, was the key emotion felt by most. The last time Shenhua won was against Jiangsu Sainty in THAT game way back on June 11, when Duvier Riascos was still playing for the club. Had you told Shenhua fans, estatic in the aftermath of turning a 2-0 deficit into a last-gasp 3-2 victory, that their team would not win again for three months, they’d surely be utterly shocked.
After the match, there were no wild scenes of celebration, but the mood was of course upbeat and your correspondent, soon bound for a four-month stint in Kunming in SW China, joined some of Shenhua’s Blue Devil ultras for a farewell drink and victory dinner which went on long, long into the night…
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