Coming at you live from the Hongkou north terrace, presents the first in a series of fan’s-eye previews of upcoming Shanghai Shenhua matches. Steve Croooks analyzes the glamour tie of this season’s big-spending Shenhua against the reigning champs of on-field and off-field largesse, Guangzhou Evergrande, which kicks off tomorrow night at 19.45 at Hongkou Stadium.
Last Time Out
Shenhua registered a first win of the season by overcoming a typically sluggish start to win the midfield battle and turn the game against an impressive Fuli side. Tigana rang the changes by starting with a defensive-looking midfield three of Zheng Kaimu, Wu Xi and new signing Wang Fei. With the game in the balance, the more cultured talents of Feng, Bozic and Cao were brought on to replace the hard-running likes of Griffiths and Manset , resulting in a cute squint-and-it’s-almost-Barcelona winner from the latter two subs which sparked lively terrace and post-game celebrations.
Evergrande meanwhile returned from a recent domestic and Asian wobble to post a convincing scoreline against an obliging Henan, and able to leave some key names on the bench while offering too much for a very limited Jianye side.
Causes for Optimism…
One man aside (and more to come on him), Shenhua looked uncharacteristically strong at the back against Fuli, with Song Boxuan settling into a left-back role and Dai Lin at his imperious thou-shalt-not-pass best. Wang Dalei is also showing signs of having remembered the basics of catching and punching over the close season to go alongside his undoubted shot-stopping ability. Anelka showed equal measures of both class and heart in his home debut, although one particular passage of play with a Berbatov-esque touch followed by a smart lay-off to nobody in particular showed the gulf to his team-mates which is yet to be bridged. Wu Xi was a revelation in the middle — if the axiom that a right-back is a poor man’s central midfielder is to be believed, then previous Shenhua coaches might want to revise their opinions of the lad.
… and for Concern
Moises. A CV with a decade of experience at strong sides in Brazil, Russia and Portugal shouldn’t lie, but the evidence of this season thus far has been of a one-paced lump lacking in both positioning and commitment. Imagine David Luiz without the hair and flair, or Rafael Scheidt without the first name, and you have Shenhua’s latest Brazilian import. The error against Guo’an was followed by a missed tackle and nutmeg against Fuli early doors which left the big man retreating into his shell and unable to do anything but stand off. One ‘clearance’ square into an unsuspecting face was the sum of his positive contributions. Suspicions that there’s a good centre-back lying inside this shattered confidence do persist, but manager and team-mates need to bring it out in training this week if an embarassment is to be avoided.
Two other concerns come down to Shenhua’s traditional makeshift back-four policy and a fair amount of uncertainty about what Tigana’s best side lines up as.
It ‘s probably worth mentioning at this point that Evergrande are also a bit handy – last season’s champions by fifteen points and demonstrating a videogame-like smoothness in their 2-0 Hongkou win, they boast an experienced coach, goalscoring number 9, wriggly support striker, classic #10 playmaker, box-to-box midfielder… the list goes on.
Jean Tigana. A very bold strategy of changing faces and playing an asymmetrical 4-4-2/4-3-3 hybrid (Griffiths advancing down the right, Wang Fei more steady on the left) paid dividends against Guangzhou’s second team, but he has some big questions to consider ahead of this one. How to avoid Shenhua’s classic first-half catatonia? To play a makeshift centre-half at right-back or deprive Wu Xi of his newfound license to dictate the game? To preach solidity in the middle of the park, or start with the fantasy offered by Cao and Feng? To trust in Manset’s physical presence, or opt for an extra midfielder to put their foot on the ball?
Rarely can a Shenhua team-sheet have been quite so anticipated, or quite so unpredicted.
If Shenhua get it tactically wrong and let Conca & Muriqui roam, the game could be over by half-time. Conversely, if it’s still tight at half-time, Shenhua’s second-half second wind and Tigana’s hairdryer treatment could set up a grandstand second half. Overall, I’m predicting a good quality game of football, with goals at both ends.
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