Didier Drogba wasted no time in making his presence at Shanghai Shenhua felt, coming off the bench to set up his new side’s equalizer and grab a 1-1 draw in a tough game away to Guangzhou Fuli.
The legendary Ivory Coast striker started the game on the bench, having been back in training for barely a week following a long break, but came on at halftime with Shenhua trailing 1-0.
His exquisite second-half pass set up fellow substitute Cao Yunding to score his fourth goal of the season – of all which the pint-sized playmaker has scored coming off the bench.
Shenhua lined up with a fluid 4-5-1 formation, but lacking an out-and-out striker. Feng Renliang and Song Boxuan providing the width on each wing, and Anelka roaming around vaguely around the final third. Jiang Kun was in an attacking midfield position, Moreno was pulling the strings, Yu Tao closing things down in defensive midfield. Moises and Dai Lin were partnered in defence, Wu Xi and Bai Jiazhun the fullbacks.
Such a well-ordered line-up meant Sergio Batista was the party pooper – no game of positional musical chairs this week, everyone was more or less playing in their natural position.
Shenhua kicked off, but after just 90 seconds R&F almost got on the score sheet when Brazilian striker Davi unleashed a great shot from the edge of the box, which elicited a magnificent diving save from Shenhua keeper Wang Dalei.
R&F had the better of the opening exchanges, and opened the scoring on 22 minutes, when Yakabu – the other African big name former EPL star appearing on the night – played a through ball out to the wing for R&F midfielder Tang Miao. He played a dangerous low cross into the middle, and Moises, stretching for the ball, succeeded only in slicing it into his own net.
It was an unforced error from the Brazilian who in his two previous league appearances for Shenhua had been on the right side of the score sheet.
Falling behind did motivate Shenhua however, and Moreno had good-looking shot from the edge of the R&F box blocked just a couple of minutes later, before an Anelka ball across the face of the net just missed out on finding Song Boxuan.
Anelka was having a mixed performance, giving the ball away needlessly on a couple of occasions, but looking dangerous at times. However midway through the first half he hit the post from point-blank range with a header when he should have scored, and when the ball was cleared, Dai Lin tested the R&F keeper Cheng Yuelei from distance to no avail.
It wasn’t one-way traffic and R&F’s other Brazilian Rafael Coelho should have done better around the 40-minute mark when he blasted the end result of a swift counter-attack high and wide.
At half-time, Drogba finally made his long-awaited debut, coming on in place of own-goal scorer Moises, as Jiang Kun also came off to be replaced by centre half Qiu Tianyi, who moved into the defensive position vacated by Moises. This double substitution was noteworthy in that it will be the first of many for the remainder of this season for Shenhua which will involve one foreign player coming off to make way for another.
With Shenhua only allowed three non-Asian players on the pitch at any one time, this creates something of a conundrum for Batista. Giovanni Moreno is perhaps mr untouchable as far as being subbed off goes – he’s quickly become the midfield maestro for Shenhua, all moves seemingly flowing through him, so its hard to see him making way for Drogba once he is fully fit. Mis-firing Anelka would be many fans’ first choice to be benched, but realistically, he is going to spend most games in partnership with Drogba upfront. Odd-man out then is centre-back Moises, expect him to start more and more games on the bench from now on in, own-goal or not, he was always the one who would suffer most from Drogba’s arrival.
Back to the game itself, and it was no understatement to say Drogba completely changed the match. In fact he took barely 20 minutes to show why he is still a player at the top of his game despite his 34 years, and why he will propel Shenhua up the table from now on in.
His first act, within two minutes of stepping onto the pitch, was to mediate a scuffle on the pitch. And just a minute or two later, he unleashed an incredible 40-yard free kick which the R&F keeper did well to keep out.
In the 53rd minute, the Ivorian should have done better than head over a tasty Feng Renliang cross, but made up for it with a magical turn which saw him take the ball down on his chest and pivot 180 degrees before unleashing a powerful first time shot which hit home keeper Cheng Yuelei before he could barely react.
Shenhua were playing like a completely different team with Drogba on board, visibly more confident and purposeful. But their new talisman’s most critical contribution came in the 68th minute, when he took a pass from Wu Xi and threaded a pinpoint through ball into the path of Cao Yunding, who took the ball round a diving Cheng Yuelei and slotted it into the net to tie the game at 1-1. Cao kissed the badge and jumped onto Drogba as the Shenhua players enjoyed what will probably be the turning point of their season.
That was really about it in terms of goal scoring opportunities for the rest of the game, Drogba had a few half-chances, and R&F indulged in some pathetic play acting to try and win a late penalty, but the game finished 1-1. Shenhua had done what no other CSL team has done this season – draw a match with R&F.
Shenhua definitely were the better team in the second half, as a direct result of you know who, but a draw was a fair result and an acceptable one for Shenhua considering R&Fs relatively lofty position.
Drogba himself did not look out of shape or struggling for fitness, and must surely be odds-on favourite to start next Saturday night, as Shenhua stay in Guangzhou to face R&Fs rivals, table-topping Evergrande.
There is no doubt, Drogba will be needed for that match.
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