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North Terrace Preview: Hangzhou Greentown v Shanghai Shenhua

This week’s fan’s-eye preview looks at Saturday’s Yangtze Delta derby, which gives two previously fancied sides the opportunity to kick on from a slow start to the season and pile misery on a local rival.

Last Time Out

Big-spending Shenhua continued their unconvincing start to an admittedly tricky opening run of fixtures, losing one-nil at home to reigning champions Guangzhou Evergrande in a truly damp squib of a game. Jean Tigana kept faith with the revamped line-up which had overcome league leaders and surprise package Guangzhou Fuli, his only change bringing Yu Tao into the center of defence to replace the injured Dai Lin.

In a stodgy encounter, neither side truly got far out of second gear — while Shenhua were generally solid, the trickery and theatrics of Muriqui and dead-ball threat of Dario Conca proved the undoing of the boys in blue. As the game progressed, Shenhua’s midfield shape became increasingly undisciplined and distorted, possibly not aided by a slew of second-half substitutions, leaving the revolutionary formation of 4-Anelka-5 strung across the field at one point.

Following on from a controversial but grafted home win over Beijing Guo’an, Greentown also continued their spotty start to the season, going down 1-0 to become the latest victims of Fuli’s 100% early home record.

Causes for Optimism…

Playing against the league’s most feared attack, Shenhua’s much-maligned rear guard mounted a refreshingly composed, consistent resistance — stronger performances from Zheng Kaimu in the shielding role and Moises at centre-half in particular. Looking much more confident and competent, we can only assume that Moises or his coach are readers of following last week’s North Terrace Preview riot act for the previously-ponderous Brazilian.

If this is the case, then this week’s public service announcement follows: please keep Feng Renliang back for half an hour after training each day to practice kicking a football with his left foot. While this foreign concept may seem cruel or traumatic for Feng at first, it may prove surprisingly useful for a man frequently deployed as a left-winger.

Having played three of last season’s top four and the brightest of the promoted teams, Shenhua’s fixture list does begin to ease up a little now — Greentown have made an equally ponderous start to this season, sitting on an equally unimpressive four points alongside Shenhua.

… and for Concern

There are some cold, hard, and unappealing statistics for Shenhua fans ahead of this weekend’s derby.

Shenhua’s record against Greentown since the latter’s 2007 promotion reads: W2 D7 L3

Goals scored by Shenhua in their last 16 away games (2011 & 2012): 9

Goals conceded by Greentown in their last 17 home games (2011 & 2012): 9

In fact, digging a little deeper into Shenhua’s ‘goals for’ column somewhat belies their reputation as a creative side undone only by a leaky rearguard.

In 34 games last season and this, Shenhua have scored a whopping 35 — that’s 1.003 goals per game, stat fans.

In that time, Shenhua have only four times scored more than twice in a game — two of those matches involving thrilling last-minute home derby winners, the other two being slightly less impressive games against Qingdao and Chengdu Blades.

If you’re of the betting persuasion, a clean sheet for Takeshi Okada’s side looks on the cards.

Key Man

Nicolas Anelka. While three games in is generally somewhat early to judge a new signing, when that new signing is of Anelka’s stature and paycheck, the judgement feels a little less premature. The former Arsenal, Real Madrid and Chelsea front-man has largely been seen drifting aimlessly in the vicinity of the center-circle thus far at Hongkou, while the willing but painfully limited Mathieu Manset huffs and puffs and blows himself out of breath further forwards.

While Anelka has said he prefers playing slightly off the lead striker, it’s doubtful whether his most effective position is a full 30-40 yards behind that striker. Whether it’s due to a lack of full match fitness (this correspondent’s guess), tactical instructions, or a lack of belief in his team-mates, Shenhua are suffering from having a player who could strike fear into any Chinese Super League centre-half pottering around in Jan Molby territory, while further forwards Manset is too busy running into people to notice the clever runs made by Joel Griffiths – a man who may be regretting the invisibility cape he wears to matches to trick his team-mates.

The Verdict

Tigana will cast off the shackles and play a 4-4-2, somehow finding a solid left-back replacement for the recklessly-sold Jiang Jiajun and even-more-recklessly-suspended Song Boxuan, with Anelka and Griffiths’ movement (fed by a midfield of Wu Xi, Yu Tao, Cao Yunding & Wang Fei combining silk and steel) overwhelming the Greentown resistance.

Or, more likely, Shenhua’s away-day travails will continue against their bogey team, losing a dull game by the odd goal in one. North Terrace Preview isn’t feeling the early-season optimism this week, possibly due to missing out on a weekend in Hangzhou due to work commitments.

Steve hosts the Chinese Football Podcast, having joined the WEF team as correspondent for Shanghai Shenhua, the side he has followed since moving to Shanghai in 2010. Exiled from the Victorian town-centre idyll of Feethams along with his childhood football team, Steve spent many an (un)happy year on Hongkou's North Terrace along with the Shenhua Element Crew and Blue Devils before relocating to Sydney from where he continues to follow the Chinese game from afar.

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