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Shanghai Shenhua 2012 season preview: A Return to Grace

Overseas pairing - Mario Božić and Nicolas Anelka

What a difference a couple of months make. As recently as the start of December, as raked over the ashes of Shenhua’s dismal 2011 campaign, we pontificated over the likelihood of Shanghai seeing a Chinese Super League championship anytime soon. We concluded that, with the club short of cash, and comprehensively out-gunned in the transfer market by big-spending Guangzhou, it would take another couple of seasons of re-building before the team could even think about adding to its rather bare trophy cabinet. The outlook was mediocre at best, and at the end of last season, even the most wildly enthusiastic Shenhua fan would probably have conceded that even qualifying for the ACL would probably be beyond Shenhua in 2012.

But,  somewhat abruptly, Shanghai Shenhua now find themselves amongst the favourites for the 2012 Chinese Super League title, thanks to a massive cash injection from god knows where and the capture of the Chinese Super League’s biggest-ever signing, Nicolas Anelka. Such is the odd and unpredictable world of Chinese football. Last year wrote that with the signing of Guangzhou’s big stars, and Anelka, “The Chinese Super League (Chinese Super League) has gone from being mentioned in embarrassed, hushed tones in the country itself, to the world’s most talked about football competition overnight.” In many ways, you can say something very similar about Shenhua this season – a mediocre team with massive potential being watched by a small band of hardcore enthusiasts, has become the hottest ticket in town in the blink of an eye.

Anelka should settle in fine

We’ve written a lot about Anelka already, but its impossible to do a Shenhua season preview without mentioning him yet again, so let’s cut straight to the chase. The move is a lot to do with off-pitch reasons – as part of his deal he’s being paid to endorse Shenhua owner Zhu Jun’s new online game Firefall, and Anelka has raised the profile of not only Shanghai Shenhua, but the Chinese Super League as a whole, to an international level. Expect Hongkou to be sold out for the first few games at least as everyone rushes to get a glimpse of the star striker. The international media, having ignored Chinese football for years except to report bad news stories on it, will buzz around Hongkou for the first month or so of the new season. They will scrutinize everything Anelka does, and continue to amuse with their basic factual errors about the Chinese Super League, before getting bored and losing interest after Anelka settles in just fine.

Serious on-pitch business

Everything will depend on how the results on the pitch in the opening stages of the season go in terms of how long the upsurge of interest in Shenhua lasts. Your correspondent really hopes that the thousands of new fans will become permanent supporters of their local team – but many of those jumping on the bandwagon are attracted by star power only, and will soon lose interest if Shenhua don’t deliver goods on the pitch, and/or Anelka doesn’t fit in for whatever reason. China is no different to anywhere else, true football fans, that is, fans who support a team they have a local connection to and support through thick and thin regardless of their success rate, are a rare breed – especially in Shanghai.

But the importance of results brings us to one very important point – with all the hoo-ha and international attention about Anelka coming, no-one has actually talked much about how he will fit into the side. This is where comes in. Traditionally, Shanghainese football is played with an attacking philosophy and the team has generally never found scoring goals hard to come by – this focus on attacking football explains why the club signed  three foreign strikers.

Chinese trio

Cao Yunding - The Shanghainese Maradona

Simply put, at this level of football of course Anelka is going to both score and create goals, that is not in any doubt. Joel Griffthis also knows his way around the Chinese Super League having spent three seasons in Beijing, and Mathieu Manset on loan from Reading looks big enough to just barge his way right through the middle of defences. There will be three Chinese players to watch out for this year, the  crucial man will be midfield playmaker Cao Yunding. More creative than the rest of the Shenhua squad put together, Cao’s advanced passing last season was a bit lost on the rest of the team who often failed to anticipate his passes. But a player of Anelka’s pedigree will thrive on such killer balls this year.

Elsewhere in the squad, Feng Renliang is still with Shenhua, he’s been linked with dozens of European clubs, but a trial with Villarreal has been the closest he’s got to securing a move. Like most things Shenhua last season, Feng was a disappointment, much was expected of him following his explosive 2010 debut season, but defences were prepared for him, and his game looked one-dimensional at times. However he did establish himself in the Chinese national team last year, if he plays to his potential, there will be plenty of wiling takers in the box for his crosses.

Finally, Wu Xi, the young rightback, was one of the few success stories last year. He’s been capped at national level and is dangerous going forward as well as being quick in the tackle and very agile. Should he repeat his form of last season, Shenhua’s dodgy defence might be stronger this year.

Shanghai Ultras

The key men – Božić  and Moisés

The real issue for Shenhua this season will be how they keep goals out. Last season, we identified the need for Shenhua to sign a solid defensive midfielder and a strong centreback. New Shenhua boss Jean Tigana didn’t need to be a reader to work this out for himself, and promptly signed Bosnian midfield enforcer Mario Božić and Brazilian stopper Moisés. Never mind Anelka, as we said, he is going to score goals no matter what. Božić  and Moisés are the two most important signings and if these two players perform well, Shenhua will be in with a shout at the end of the season. Not an awful lot is known about either of these players. Moisés counts Spartak Moscow and Portugal’s Braga amongst his ex-teams, a player with such a pedigree should have no problem performing in the Chinese Super League. Božić appears to be a tough-tackling midfielder with a good long-range shot, Shenhua badly need a midfield hardman and he could fit the bill. At the end of the day, if these two players don’t come up with the goods, Shenhua’s massive outlay on Anelka risks being wasted, because the side is weak at the back.

Fragile defence, calamitous captaincy.

Wing wizard Feng Renliang (STR/AFP/Getty Images)

One wonders why Shenhua felt it necessary to buy three foreign strikers. With the departure of Jiang Jiajun to Jiangsu Sainty, Shenhua only have 34-year-old Chen Liang at left back and little cover. In the middle, Dai Lin is a very good ball-playing central defender, but hopefully  Moisés will be a steadying influence, because Dai lacks even basic control over his emotions, constantly getting himself involved in fights and disputes with anyone and everyone. For reasons beyond imagination, he was given the captain’s armband last season, hopefully Tigana will restore Yu Tao to the captaincy immediately – he’s a seasoned veteran who has been with Shenhua for a decade or so and there is no more suitable candidate, especially in such a big season such as the one about to begin.

Can Shenhua do it?

So the big question is – can Shenhua do it? Had Shenhua been competing with their current team two years ago, they would have been hot favourites. But that was then… for now there really is no simple answer. This season is going to be even harder to predict than normal as there are simply even more unknowns compared with this time last season. Will Tigana make a difference? His record is not impressive. Will Anelka settle? How will Beijing’s new signings blend? What about Shandong? Are Guangzhou going to play even better now they have a virtually unchanged team who will have gelled together after a championship season? What about the newly-promoted teams who are backed by rich benefactors? Will Shanghai Shenxin be a beach-side derby banana skin for Shenhua? In any case, there’s sure to be frenzied speculation as the summer transfer window draws near, if Shenhua aren’t performing up to scratch at that point, there may be changes. Zhu Jun might splash the cash in the summertime and bring Drogba, which would be a total game-changer. One prediction we can make is that the summer window will be a chaotic and could make whatever happened in the first half of the season irrelevant. But come what may, Shenhua fans are in for a thrilling ride this year and exciting scenes will unfold on every matchday at Hongkou stadium.

Final prediction? Shenhua will be runners-up to Guangzhou.

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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