Around 51,000 fans packed into Gongti on Friday night to witness an evening of dramatic footballing theatre as Beijing Guoan beat Shanghai Shenhua 3-2 in the China Derby.
This fixture is the biggest in Chinese domestic sport and needs little introduction, and by default is a very exciting fixture regardless of the formbook or league positions of it two participants. But this was a thriller with more back-story, sub-plots, ironies and complex twists than even the most far-fetched Hollywood blockbuster. Taking centre stage were three stars – Nicolas Anelka, Joel Griffthis and Mao Jianqing. Each man enjoyed being under the spotlight during the game and the attack-minded trio would each find themselves on the scoresheet by the end of the night – this was to be one movie script even the Chinese Super League couldn’t make up.
Your correspondent was present at Gongti to enjoy the show in person having unwittingly rode a hard seat train from Shanghai for 14 hours the previous evening to reach the capital, with a group of Shanghai Ultras. Sitting around waiting for a long time was to be a recurring theme for many Shenhua fans that evening – away supporters were required by police to arrive at the stadium no later than 3.30pm – some four hours before kick-off. Around 150 fans made the trip in various small groups, and for those who unwisely took the dirt-cheap hard seat train, having to be in the ground so early robbed them of the chance to catch up with badly-needed sleep after a very long Thursday night.
Some Beijing fans voluntarily arrived much earlier than was necessary, appearing in the ground two hours before kick-off. However, they quickly set about abusing the Shenhua fans, who responded in kind with choice insults and industrial language. When the game finally got underway, the first drama of the night had already unfolded – the biggest singing in the history of Chinese football had just made his debut. Nicolas Anelka had been rated very doubtful going into the match, but surprised everyone by appearing in the starting line-up. The Anelka era had finally begun in earnest.
The man himself looked to be playing within himself and appeared to be not totally match fit. However his class and touch was there for all to see – for the first time a real superstar was playing in a competitive match at Gongti. His main contribution as an exquisite ball through the Beijing defence for Cao Yunding to run onto. Although unfortunately the Shanghainese Maradona could only hit his shot into the side netting. This, apart from Feng Renliang blasting the ball over after Mario Božić his the bar with a free-kick, was about all Shenhua had to offer in the attacking department in the first half.
Shanghai’s shaky defending department had even less to offer. It been one of the sub-plots unfolding at the start of the China Derby movie. Everyone with a pair of eyes and at least a passing interest in Chinese football can see that this has been Shenhua’ s weak point for many seasons, however the club bought three foreign strikers this season. Moises, the Brazilian defender signed in the close season didn’t look very solid on his debut against Jiangsu Sainty last week. Come to think of it, the phrase “Brazilian defender” and “solid” don’t really go together. And after Beijing had mounted several dangerous-looking attacks, they finally got the break when Moises, who could have headed the ball anywhere, somehow managed to nod it directly into the path of Piao Cheng, who couldn’t believe his luck and hit a lovely first time volley past Shenhua keeper Wang Dawei. It was a self-inflicted wound, but Shenhua hadn’t been looking too clever anyway. Half-time 1-0 Beijing.
Within minutes of the re-start, Guoan went further ahead, with utterly bad defending again a factor. Manu was left completely unmarked at the far post to knock in a low cross from the right almost on the goal line. At this point, Shenhua were looking down and out, Anelka or not.
But on the hour mark, it was time for a different sub-plot to unravel. A handball inside the area resulted in a penalty for Shenhua, and who should stride up to take it by former Guoan hero, Joel Griffthis. He somehow managed to not let his massive balls of steel impair his ability to kick a football, and in a professionalism masterclass, stroked the spot-kick home to put Shenhua back in with a shout. At this point, the men from Hongkou hadn’t really looked like scoring and only good fortune had given them the opportunity. But with the brave Shanghai ultras on the terrace behind the goal still singing songs of celebration for their first goal, Manu blotted his copy book with a real howler of a back pass which fell right into the path of Joel Griffthis. The Aussie’s shot was blocked by Hou Sen in the Beijing goal, but the rebound fell to Anelka who managed to keep his composure and knock the easy chance home to score on his debut and open his Chinese Super League account. Beijing fans must have looked on and wondered how on earth they had managed to ship a two-goal lead, Shenhua fans simply celebrated wildly and all happily were settling for a draw.
But it was not to be. In a final twist in the 83rd minute, former Shenhua winger Mao Jianqing, the first Shanghainese to play for Guoan, continued his irritating habit of scoring against Shenhua with a great header right in front of Guoan’s Yulinjiun fan group. Mao responded by throwing his shirt about 100 feet into the air and running around looking pleased with himself as Gongti exploded into a cauldron of noise and celebration. It was another irony for Shenhua, a locally born attacking player who left in 2009 for reasons which have never been made fully public had returned to his old team who now rely on foreign talent for most of their attacking roles. This was pure footballing theatre – Mao allegedly left Shenhua on bad terms as, according to the word-on-the-weibo, Mao once asked Shenhua big boss Zhu Jun to borrow money for his mother’s hospital treatment, but was turned down. Regardless, Mao clearly enjoyed scoring against his old club – the fourth time he has done so. Retribution was his in the most painful way for Shenhua to swallow.
With the visitors all but down and out, there was still time for a final act of stupidity. Jiang Kun, on as a substitute, went for an early bath after taking a kick at a Guoan player who had gotten the better of him. Jiang, the hero of Shenhua’s final-minute victory at the end of last season in the China Derby at Hongkou, was villain this time round, but in truth Shenhua were never going to bring it back to 3-3, and the whistle mercifully blew not so long afterwards.
Beijing were deserved winners and were saluted by a wall of green scarves at the end of the match. Shenhua players applauded the travelling fans, who applauded back. But all told, it was another poor performance from the Shanghai side. The defensive failings were there for all to see, and the two goals scored were gifts from Guoan.
New manager Jean Tigana now faces a very tough battle to register his first victory with Shenhua – Guangzhou Fuli, who have made a shock start to the season after beating Guoan and derby rivals Evergrande in the first two games, are due to visit Hongkou next Saturday.
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