A goal from substitute Cao Yunding midway through the second half was enough to give Shanghai Shenhua a deserved victory against Guizhou Renhe last night.
In something of a departure from previous games in which they avoided defeat, Shenhua outplayed their opponents and were fully deserving of victory, despite fielding a makeshift team.
This week’s game of Shenhua musical chairs saw a number of even more inventive positional selections than usual. Wang Lin, who spent all of last season playing centre half, was on the right wing. Song Boxuan, a left winger / left back, was playing just behind hapless Mattieu Manset upfront. Yu Tao, a defensive midfielder, was at left back.
The action started with Shenhua attacking the north terrace – this tends to be a bad sign, as they normally choose to attack the opposite goal. The opening stages were hard-fought as both sides wrestled to take control of the match. Guizhou, a team who started life in the mid-nineties as Shanghai Pudong, before moving to Xian, and then to Guizhou this season, had a few decent chances in the first half hour.
The best of these fell to Zlatan Muslimović, who was left unmarked when a cross into the box found him just a couple of yards in front of the goal line, but he could only head over from close range on the half-hour mark – a real left-off for Shenhua.
Undeterred, the home side continued pressing, and also continued to play a very pleasing brand of passing, attacking football – classic Shanghainese style soccer, yet something which has been strangely absent this season so far. Speaking of absence, Nicolas Anelka was not on the pitch due to a one-match suspension for too many bookings, but he was not missed. Mattieu Manset may lack footballing ability, but positionally-speaking he did play a classic centre forward role which helped the team keep its shape.
Manset also made an even more significant contribution when he got on the end of a long ball forward from the Shenhua back line. He took the ball nicely on his chest and brought it down, struggling to carry it forward as it bounced awkwardly. He held off pressure from Guizhou defenders Dino Đulbić and Liu Tangqi, but failed to bring the ball adequately under control – by the time he did he had nothing else to do except try a hopeful shot.
He got lucky as Guizhou keeper Zhang Lie let the ball squirm past him at the near post as Shenhua scored their first goal at Hongkou for over two months – March 24 against Guangzhou R&F was the last time the boys in blue managed to chalk one up.
The north terrace was, predictably, absolutely buzzing following the on-loan Reading striker’s first ever goal for Shenhua. Some fans appeared to have forgotten how to react to a goal, or possibly were just stunned into disbelief that Manset had actually managed to score.
Half-time 1-0 Shenhua and the mood on the terraces was one of upbeat surprise. Your correspondent’s party was waylaid by Shanghai International TV channel on the concourse during half-time. Normally one to avoid appearing on camera, your correspondent was caught off-guard, being in somewhat of a positive frame of mind for once at Hongkou, and having demolished a whole crate of beer between just 4-5 drinkers in the hot pot restaurant before the game.
After first making some unbroadcastable remarks, the writer of this report composed himself briefly to deliver some more sober analysis before passing the buck onto several other slightly inebriated members of the party. We all jointly refused to do a group sing and dance for the cameras though – there’s enough laowai monkey shows on Chinese TV already. Another group of nearby foreign Shenhua supporters obliged readily though.
Re-entering the stadium after the half-time break, it seemed almost odd to go back in with Shenhua holding a lead. However, joy turned to disappointment just a few minutes after the re-start when Qu Bo scored a great free kick from around 25 yards out, looping from right to left and past the diving Wang Dalei.
That man Wang again had to look sharp in the 58th minute, diving to deny a low Zhang Chenglin shot which almost went in at the bottom right of his goal.
Despite this, and for the first time in ages, conceding an equalizer had not deterred Shenhua, and the entire team pressed on looking hungry and purposeful. Wang Lin in particular was looking impressive – perhaps he has a future playing on the right of midfield. He made several key interceptions and ran tirelessly to close down attacking players when not in possession. Feng Renliang was also looking dangerous, and showed off his new skill – crossing the ball with his left foot – on a few dangerous occasions.
Shenhua were breaking forward and looking threatening as the game wore on, and got the breakthrough they deserved in the 67th minute. Cao Yunding won a loose ball in the midfield and ran forward, getting the break of the ball as he evaded two defenders to find himself one-on-one with Guizhou keeper Zhang Lie. He managed to control the ball well and neatly slot it home to put Shenhua 2-1 up and sent the home fans into delirium as the boys in blue scored two goals at home for the first time since last season. It was an excellent goal from a player who came off the bench to score for the second time this season.
Emboldened, Shenhua pressed on and continued to have the upper hand, but almost lost their lead just three minutes from time when a close range Guizhou shot rolled towards an empty net with Wang Dalei beaten, but Wu Xi was able to clear the danger just in the nick of time.
Somehow, the referee saw fit to add five minutes of stoppage time – some of it surely due to the constant bleating and complaining to the ref of Guizhou’s Muslimović, who indulged in pathetic play-acting attempts on several occasions. Just seconds before the final whilst though, Shenhua almost made it three when youngster Liu Junnan took a shot from about 25 yards out, but the Guizhou keeper pulled off a great diving save. Seconds later, the final whilst went, and Shenhua’s long winless and goalless Hongkou drought was over.
In Shenhua’s previous two victories this season, fortune played its part, but not in this match. Guizhou played well, but Shenhua played better and simply looked like they knew what they were supposed to be doing and where they were supposed to be playing. All this with a weakened team lacking Griffiths, Moises and most interestingly – Anelka.
The Chinese Super League now goes on a two-week break due to international friendlies, and Shenhua’s next game is not until June 16, away to Changchun.
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