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Four in a row: Dreary derby as Shenhua fail to score again

Six hours since their last goal at home. That is the miserable milestone  Shenhua’s multi-million dollar strikeforce passed last night as they drew a blank at Hongkou for the fourth consecutive game in a dull derby with Shanghai Shenxin last night.

In a largely boring game devoid of noteworthy action, Nicolas Anelka, captain and defacto player-manager of Shenhua, disappointed fans by leaving the pitch immediately instead of making his way to the north terrace with the rest of the team, to salute the fans, as per the normal post-game ritual.

The “New Shanghai Derby”, as the local media put it, attracted some celebrities to Hongkou stadium. Players from the city’s basketball team, Shanghai Sharks, were in attendance, as was Shanghainese footballing legend and former Crystal Palace, Dundee and Shenhua player, Fan Zhiyi. Completing the line-up of heavyweights from the world of Chinese football taking in the game were former Shenhua coach Wu Jingui and current Chinese national team manager, Jose Camacho.

However, their enthusiasm for the derby spectacle was not matched by club owner Zhu Jun, who, rather oddly,  flew to Malaysia that morning and spent Saturday evening playing football with friends “in an exotic stadium somewhere” instead of taking in the game online, according to Sina Sports.

It also seemed most of the Shanghai public agreed – after some initial reports early last week in the Shanghai media that ticket sales would be over 20,000, the match was in fact attended by a mere 11,732 souls – a stark contrast to the last Shanghai Derby in 2006, when 30,000 squeezed into Hongkou to see Shenhua take on Zhu Jun’s then Shanghai United side.

The men from Nanchang the outer suburb of Jinshan had quite a long way to travel to take part in the first Shanghai derby in six years – at least an hour’s drive or so.

Nanchang were originally formed in Shanghai in 2003, and moved back to Shanghai in a puzzling relocation just before the season kicked off. Nanchang had respectable crowds of around 10,000 in the capital of Jiangxi province last yer – about the same as Shenhua’s level of support last year. It’s unclear what benefit the owners thought they would get from taking the club back to Shanghai – so far their games in the 30,000 capacity Jinshan Stadium have struggled to attract more than 2-3000 fans per match.

So the derby was fairly weak in terms of local passion, Shenxin brought with them several hundred fans, mostly from Nanchang – the management of the club agreed to provide free transport to Shanghai to every home game as a means of compensation to disappointed Nanchang fans who resisted their clubs relocation.

In the match itself, Shenxin dominated the first 30 minutes as Shenhua continued their insipid performances of late. It was a dull opening period, and Shenhua once again had a new line-up and tactical approach. Dai Lin returned to the line up following his bereavement leave over the death of his father the previous week. He was honoured by the fans with banners showing messages of support at the end of the match (pictured).

Song Boxuan made a welcome return to the line-up – but at right midfield instead of the problem left-back position, which this week was occupied by centre-half, Wang Lin. Joel Griffthis started up front, with Anelka just behind. Youngster Wang Guanyi got another start in midfield alongside Yu Tao, Bozic sat the game out due to suspension. Mattieu Mansett was no-where near the starting line-up, and quite rightly so.

The first action of any kind came in the 13th minute when Shenxin’s Zhu Jiawei cut inside from the left and unleashed a shot from the edge of the area. Wang Dalei kept the ball out but spilled it to on-rushing striker Anselmo who got a shot in – Wang closed the gap enough to beat the effort down. The ball fell to Anselmo again who back heeled it to Zou Zhongting who also got in a shot – but Wang was the man yet again.

In the 24th minute, Australian striker Jonas Salley had a great chance to open the scoring for the visitors when he received the ball in a dangerous position in the box, but Song Boxuan pulled off a magnificent tackle to dispossess him before he could pull the trigger. Shortly afterwards, Joel Griffthis suffered a knee injury again, his place was taken by playmaker Cao Yunding.

Just before half-time, Shenhua had one of their few chances when Cao Yunding put Anelka through with a great ball, but Shenxin defender Zhao Zujun beat the 175,000 UK pounds a week man to it and the danger was gone.

In the 2nd half, Cao Yunding and Song Boxuan combined well on the right side to set up a chance, but Cao’s shot was weak and easily saved. In the 56th minute, Jiang Xiaochen showed some great skill to control a long ball and pull off a shot from the edge of the box for Shenxin, but once again, Wang Dalei saved Shenhua’s skin with a great diving save.

Cao Yunding again was the creator for Shenhua in the 70th minute, when he threaded an exquisite pass foward through a crowded midfield. The ball landed nicely to Anelka, who showed great skill to bring it under control and fire off a shot under pressure. Unfortunately, he hit the post and the ball was cleared safe.

Shenhua were handed an advantage in the 72nd minute, when Shenxin defender Li Lei was sent off for a cynical body block on Shenhua youngster Gu Bin. But despite having 20 minutes left to play, Shenhua still couldn’t score, even against ten men. Feng Renliang came close a few minutes of time with a nice shot from the edge of the box, Shenxin keeper Liu Dianzou was equal to it though.

And so it finished 0-0 and Shenhua went yet another game without scoring, and another final whistle was greeted with a chorus of boos. Their previous record of not scoring at home was two games, and that happened way back in 1996. At this rate, Shenhua may extend their record even further.

Signs are beginning to show on the terraces that fans’ patience is wearing thin for Anelka. Chants in support of his name are becoming noticeably less frequent, and he was chastised by a pair of drunk and abusive foreign fans at one point.

He has looked disinterested at times, and whilst there can be no doubt that his calibre of teammate is lacking compared with what he was used to at Chelsea, it’s simply not on that he can’t make a bigger impact at this level. At any rate, the players around him are still professionals and are not without ability, in the highlights reel above twice Anelka is set up with great scoring opportunities when it looked like none existed, by Cao Yunding. Basically, Anelka needs to put in more effort on the pitch and less effort off it.

Strangely, Shenhua’s defence has been something of a revelation this season. Wang Dalei is showing why he was once the subject of interest from Inter Milan, and if it were not for his heroics so far this year, Shenhua would be at the bottom of the table.

Moises has been a solid buy and a steadying influence on the back four, and Dai Lin has shown greater maturity this season to go along with his undoubted talent as a defender,  and the personal support shown to him from the fans over the loss of his father shows that his rehabilitation with the support is continuing after some awkward moments in the past.

Qiu Tianyi is fit once again and showing why the towering young centre half is rated so highly by the backroom staff and already a fan favourite despite not being a first team regular. Wu Xi has one of the best football brains of any player in the Chinese Super League and seems almost wasted at right back, if Shenhua can sort out their problem left-back position, the defence would be impervious.

All-in-all, the fact Shenhua have conceded less goals than ever other team except Jiangsu shows a remarkable turnaround for its much-maligned defence. All the more frustrating, then, for its fans when its huge money strike force can’t even score one goal in four games in front of its own support in Shanghai.

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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