A somewhat fortuitous goal gave Guangzhou Evergrande a priceless away victory at Shanghai Shenhua’s Hongkou stadium on a damp and rainy Friday night.
The game featured the Chinese Super Leagues two biggest-spending teams, as the league’s two biggest names, Dario Conca and Nicolas Anelka, went head to head for the first time – but none of the stars on display shone particularly brightly in what was an uninspiring encounter.
Shenhua lined up with exactly the same team as in the previous week against Evergrande’s city rivals, with the exception of Dai Lin who was out with a facial injury. His place in the centre of defence was taken by Yu Tao – a defensive midfielder and lacking the physical stature required of the role. Despite this, he was to put in a reasonably competent performance, as did the entire back four, for once.
The line-up was all the more surprising given the impact of Mario Bozic and Cao Yunding who came off the bench to provide the winning goal in the previous match. Once play kicked off, Shenhua appeared to be playing in an asymmetric formation again, but played with a more defensive mentality. Manset was up front on his own,and Anelka him behind in the second striker position, Griffthis playing on the right wing pushing forward, and Wang Fei playing in a straight left midfield role. Wu Xi was playing defensive midfield again, Qiu Tianyi was at rightback once more.
The game got off to a slow start and didn’t ever really pick up the pace. Both teams cancelled each other out, and Anelka even dropped back into centre midfield for most of the first half. However he almost got on the scoresheet in the opening minutes when he got the better of Brazilian defender Paulo at the back in a tussle for the ball, but shot straight at the keeper. Guangzhou were having the better of the play and Conca almost scored from a freekick on the left side just outside the area around the 20th minute, but curled his shot into the side netting.
Guangzhou made the breakthrough on the half hour mark, when, not for the first time, Muriqui went down rather easily from a challenge, this time from Anelka. Conca stepped up to take the kick from around 30 yards out, he appeared to fluff his shot a little, it barely rose off the ground but it somehow got through the Shenhua wall and deflected off Guangzhou veteran Feng Junyan as home keeper Wang Dalei could only watch it fire into the net. It was a goal which was not entirely undeserved, but neither team had really looked like scoring up until this point.
Just like last week, Tigana rang the changes in the second half. Cao Yunding replaced Qiu Tianyi at half time, and slotted into a central midfield position occupied by Anelka, who resumed a more straightforward striking role for the rest of the game. Feng Renliang came on for Wang Fei early in the 2nd, and Manset made way for Bozic in the 67th minute. These were the same three players who came on in the previous week, but, they were unable to make much difference this time around against a higher quality side.
Early in the second half, former Shenhua defender Song Xiang took a long-range shot which Wang Dalei had to be sharp to keep out of the net, and Zhang Lingpeng’s effort from the rebound. And in the 58th minute, Guangzhou were denied a clear penalty when Yu Tao slid to block a Muriqui shot, only for the ball to clearly strike his arm as he went down on the turf. The referee, who had an eccentric game, didn’t see the infringement.
Shenhua had little the offer in the way of attacks, but they did defend very well against what is still the best side in China. Towards the end of the match, Anelka had a header on target, but it looped harmlessly towards the Guangzhou keeper without any danger of going in. That and a few other half-chances were about it in terms of chances for the homeside. The game was effectively ended when Song Boxuan was sent off for a dive in the 83rd minute. Even as a Shenhua correspondent, it was a dive and it was his second bookable offence, Shenhua fan’s chanted hei shao (black whistle)… but whilst the referee by no means had a good game, he got that call right.
The ref’s red card made another appearance just minutes from time when Evergrande captain Sun Xiang was sent for an early bath after tripping Zheng Kaimu on the touchline. He remonstrated with the referee, before walking off slowly to a torrent of abuse from the Shenhua faithful. That was the last notable moment of a fairly dull match.
Overall, Shenhua didn’t play badly against a team who are clearly better than the other three sides faced in the league so far, but at the end of the day, they weren’t good enough to win and did not look as accomplished and polished a side as Guangzhou. Tigana appears to be still undecided about what his best side is – infact it appears that he’s unsure how to use Anelka’s undoubted talents. Is he a straight-up striker, a midfielder, or one of those forwards who drift between the front line and the midfield? Anelka himself doesn’t appear to know what he’s supposed to do, dropping back extremely deep at times, whilst Manset huffs and puffs upfront without much effect, and creative native Cao Yunding warms the bench.
The blue masses left Hongkou disappointed at failing to even score against Guangzhou for the third game running. Despite the rain, the biggest crowd of the season – 21,356 – turned up according to the stadium scoreboard. That still left around 10,000 empty seats however, even if a few thousand below and near the away fans are given up for security purposes. With Shenhua showing no noticeable improvement on last season’s showings so far, despite the massive investment in better foreign players, a capacity Hongkou looks unlikely for the time being, especially considering the cheapest tickets went up from 30 to 80RMB.
All in all, Four points from a possible 12 so far is dissapointing at best and Tigana needs to quickly work out who his best players are.
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