A lovely late goal by Shanghainese playmaker Cao Yunding was enough to give Jean Tigana his first victory as Shenhua manager on Saturday night as his side laboured to a 1-0 win over high-flying Guangzhou Fuli.
The result was celebrated lustily by Shenhua fans, many of whom were not expecting a victory, having watched their side stumble out of the starting blocks this season. The Hongkou side went into the match on the back of a home draw to Jiangsu and an away defeat to Beijing in their opening two games, in contrast to newly-promoted Fuli, who beat both last year’s champions and runners-up in their first two Chinese Super League matches.
Tigana clearly hadn’t been impressed with Shenhua’s efforts in the middle of the park in the previous 3-2 defeat to Guoan – he dropped the entire midfield. This had repercussions on the rest of the team, unsurprisingly – no fewer than three squad-members were selected in unfamiliar positions. Left midfielder Song Boxuan continued at left back, right-back Wu Xi was selected in a holding midfield role, his place at right-back was filled by promising young centre-half Qiu Tianyi. Jiang Kun was suspended after his red card against Beijing, Cao Yunding, Yu Tao, Feng Renliang and new signing Mario Božić were all benched. Taking their places across the middle were close season signings Wang Fei and Zheng Kaimu.
Anelka played “in the hole” but would later drift all over the park in a free role, Mathieu Manset made his first start for his new side, alongside Griffiths upfront in what appeared to be a 4-1-2-1-2 diamond formation.
Whilst it was good to see Tigana make some much-needed changes, and Qiu Tianyi and Song Boxuan at least placed in positions not necessarily incompatible with their usual roles, it made no difference as Shenhua made their customary slow start to a game. In a rather dull first half, the home side struggled to control the game, and Rafael Coelho, Fuli’s Brazilian attacker, came close with a long-range shot after the Shenhua defence stood off him for more than 30 yards without making a challenge. Fuli made several roving attacks forward, but they were thwarted at almost every turn by Shenhua defender Dai Lin, who made several crunching and vital tackles and put in a commanding performance.
Anelka was showing some nice touches, but seemed unable to impose himself on the game and again looking less than fit. He had one good chance though when a great through ball from Wu Xi found him in the box, but Fuli keeper Cheng Yuelei was equal to the task and dived bravely at his feet.
Wu Xi was in the thick of it once more when he took a pop from more than 25 yards out. Cheng beat the ball down with palms as Manset failed to get on the rebound, and the ball went safe. That was about it for the first half in terms of action worth commentating on. A lacking first half for the home side, once again.
In countless contests last year, Shenhua played much better in the second half. And now with three Frenchmen at Hongkou stadium, it’s déjà vu all-round, as, just like in the first two matches of the season, Shenhua emerged from the dressing room and played with much more purpose in the second 45. However, despite the overall great performance of Dai Lin, he was caught out of position after closing down too far up the pitch, and an unmarked Coelho received a nice through ball. Wang Dalei did very well indeed to prevent the Brazilian getting a shot in, and the ball rolled out harmlessly for a goal kick.
Tigana then rang the changes around the hour mark, restoring some familiarity to the midfield by swapping Wang Fei for Feng Renliang and Griffiths for Cao Yunding in quick succession. These switches solidified Shenhua’s initiative in the second half, despite the previously effective Griffiths leaving the park. Manset made way for Bozic around the 70th minute, and suddenly Shenhua’s midfield had a lot more bite. It was as if Tigana had reminded Feng, Bozic and Cao that their places were not guaranteed – and it was a move that worked when two of these players combined to supply a very neat goal just five minutes from time.
It was an effort that suggested Anelka is fitting in with his new team-mates well – Mario Bozic took the ball from his feet and threaded a great pass to an on-rushing Cao Yunding, who got to the ball just in time to dink it over the on-rushing Fuli keeper and into the net to continue Shenhua’s pleasant habit of sealing victories late in games.
The final whistle was greeted by a huge cheer and followed by raucous celebrations by a relieved Hongkou faithful for Shenhua’s first victory of the season. It was by no means a solid performance by the home side, but Shenhua probably just about did enough to edge a Fuli team who were playing their first game on the road this year. Tigana instigated more droppings since “they started putting all-bran in bird seed” as James Richardson of Football Italia once said, but it was the dropped players who came off the bench to combine for the goal.
Shenhua are still finding their feet so far and much intrigue lies ahead this year as when or even if Shenhua can mount a challenge, and the precise on-pitch identities of those mounting it.
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