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Shenhua 1:0 Dalian: Battle of the fallen giants

If a week is a long time in politics, then six years is an eternity in the Chinese Super League. When your correspondent first started following Shenhua regularly in 2005, Dalian Shide v Shanghai Shenhua was the biggest match on Chinese football’s domestic calendar. That year, Dalian won the league and Shenhua finished runners-up, with the Shanghai clash between the two sides attracting more than 25,000 spectators to Hongkou stadium to witness a 2-1 victory for the home side. The two teams were the undisputed powerhouses of Chinese football back then – at the end of the 2005 season, Dalian had won eight of the 11 Chinese Championships held since pro football was launched in 1994, whilst Shenhua had won twice and finished runners-up six times.

Veteran defender Cheng Liang celebrates his 100th Shenhua appearance

Since then, Dalian have went into serious decline,  not even finishing high enough to qualifiy for a single ACL campaign, and have even flirted with relegation on occasion. Shenhua have fared a little bettter in the last five years, but not much, taking the runners-up spot twice more. However this season of course, as regular readers will already be well aware, Shenhua find themselves at the wrong end of the table – right next to Dalian as a matter of fact, which allows us to neatly segue to last night’s game.

The match was a very sorry immitation of the huge Dalian-Shenhua clashes of the early to mid 2000s, with the crowd well below five figures. There was a distinct end-of-season feel to the game, both sides with nothing to play for in their last three matches. However, Shenhua scored with virtually their first attack of the match, when Cao Yinding lobbed a ball forward which was met by the head of Wu Xi just before the Dalian keeper could reach it. The ball bobbed over the custodian and rolled into the net to put the homeside one up.

There wasn’t an awful lot of action in the rest of the first half, Qiu Shenjiong actually managed to pull off a couple of decent saves from Dalian attacks, and Feng Renliang, who was having one of his best games all season, hit Dalian’s crossbar just before half time with a rasping freekick from 30 yards out.

Dalian came into it more in the second half, and again Qiu looked lively in goal, for once justifying why he is playing professional football, denying the visitors on several occasions. Then, in the 78th minute Shenhua rode their luck when Martin Kamburov, Dalian’s Bulgarian striker, hit the post with a well-struck freekick from about 25 yards out. That was to be Dalian’s last real chance and Shenhua held on for a narrow win, leapfrogging their opponents in the process into 11th place.

The two sides must surely be hoping that when they next meet, the circumstances will more closely resemble their classic jousts of the previous decade, rather than a low-key fixture between two sides not a million miles away from being relegated.

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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