Hangzhou hit the bar in the dying seconds of a lively Yangtze Delta Derby as Nicolas Anelka’s early goal gave Shenhua a point on the road in a tricky away fixture on Saturday night.
Shenhua made an uncharacteristically good start to the match, taking the game to their derby opponents right from the kick off at Huanglong stadium and looking very dangerous. It was no surprise when the visitors opened the scoring on just nine minutes through Anelka’s close range finish, but with the huge away support still celebrating, Hangzhou went right up the pitch and equalised.
In the build up to the match, the intriguing sub-plot which has accompanied all Shenhua games this season continued – who would be playing where when the team line-up was announced. In fact the starting XI and formation was the most orthodox-looking yet this season. Cao Yunding, Marco Bozic and Feng Renliang returned to the starting line-up to take their places in midfield and on the right wing respectively. Anelka played a more conventional role upfront with Griffiths, occasionally dropping deeper, whilst Manset was benched. At the back, Yu Tao continued to deputize for injured centre half Dai Lin, whilst the man who partnered him in the centre of defence last year, Wang Lin, was playing at left-back. Once again, Tigana’s choice of back line highlighted the folly of Shenhua’s top-heavy transfer policy – two men were playing out of position in defence.
Nevertheless, with Cao back in midfield he wasted no time making his presence felt. After a bright opening spell which contrasted sharply with Shenhua’s habit of not playing until the second half, Cao Yunding found space on the right and ran down the channel before squaring a tidy ball to Anelka, who struggled to control it tightly but managed to drill a low shot into the net – much to the delight of the 1,000-strong away support who jumpe up down wildly. Hangzhou and Shenhua’s rivalry has been growing more intense over the last few seasons – with violence on several occasions in the past. At this game, your correspondent made the 90 minute journey south-west sitting in a convoy of 12 supporters buses which were given a police escort all the way from a service station on the outskirts of the city, straight to the ground. Traffic was stopped at every junction all the way through the suburbs and into downtown Hangzhou so that the convoy did not need to stop or even slow down before reaching the stadium in the middle of town.
To stop so much traffic in a city of 4 million people took an incredible amount of manpower. witnessed police cars on ever single street corner all the way in to the city, and also on the way out after the game. It was an effort in traffic and crowd control which must have cost an awful lot of money. That’ s to say nothing of the hundreds of army, riot police and hired security at the stadium itself.
But back to the match. Many footballing schools of thought say a team is at its most vulnerable just after having scored. Hangzhou proved this was true when Renatinho got in front of Wang Lin to stab home a hard cross from the right and abruptly end the away support’s celebrations in the 10th minute.
The instant reply knocked the wind out of Shenhua’s sails and they failed to control the game after this blow. However Cao Yunding started off a great move in midfield and passed the ball out wide to Joel Griffthis, who returned a decent ball back to an on-rushing Cao in the penalty box, however the Shanghai playmaker’s shot hit the post.
Hangzhou were having their own fair share of the action and Yu Tao came to the rescue around the 25th minute when he was on hand to clear a trundling shot off the line. Shenhua almost took the lead just before half time when a Bozic ball to the back post was met by the foot of Anelka, but he had to stretch too far and his lob floated over the bar. Half time 1-1.
Shenhua thought they had taken the lead in the 69th minute when Bozic cross found Jiang Kun at the back post, but his header was ruled out for what can only be described as a very dubious offside. Shenhua also had a strong penalty claim mid-way through the second half, but since Sina’s inexplicably brief highlights reel doesn’t show the incident, not much more can be said about it since your correspondent was watching from the opposite end of the stadium and had a poor view of it.
The game looked to be petering out into a draw when some good running by Anelka found Wu Xi outside the box, his lob towards the penalty spot was met by Griffiths’ head, but Hangzhou keeper Jiang Bo leapt like a cat to snatch the ball out of the air and prevent a late winner. And in the dying seconds, Hangzhou thought they had done just that when Wang Song’s header looped over Wang Dalei and struck the bar, before Moises performed another acrobatic feat to clear the ball to safety – cue massive relief for the travelling support who thought their last-gasp victory against Hangzhou last year was coming back to haunt them.
So 1-1 it finished then, on balance probably a fair result even although both sides had chances to win it. Shenhua had a much better first half than second which at least was a change on previous matches even if not a positive one as such. The defence again played solidly despite its makeshift nature, Anelka had a good game as did Cao Yunding and Bozic, both restored to the starting line-up. However Shenhua lacked a cutting edge and at the end of the day, five points from a possible 15 so far simply is not good enough, particularly when most of the opposition teams have been assembled far less expensively then Shenhua’s. One might say that the opening five games have been tough – a home and away Yangtze Delta Derby, an away trip to Beijing, and both Guangzhou teams at home. But none of the sides faced so far have been without their problems, with the exception of R&F, who ironically are the only side Shenhua have managed to beat so far.
The league is tight so far and as we have seen, bottom teams have taken points from those at the top, so there is time yet for Shenhua to get back in the running.
Shenhua take on Tianjin at home in their next match, on Friday night at 19.45.
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