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Drogba era finally begins for Shenhua in battling away draw

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.

UK trained journalist and long-time Chinese football observer Cameron Wilson has been writing about Chinese football for over a decade...

6 Comments

6 Comments

  1. Steve

    23/07/2012 at 17:38

    A very bittersweet game & result, this one — after that shambolic first half of a season, Shenhua are performaing far more at their theoretical level now — but far too late to make anything other than mid-table a realistic possibility.

    While Drogba looked very sharp and had a huge impact, there are some worrying signs in players getting into a “give it to Drogba and hope he wins it one-handed” popping up.

    If I were Feng Renliang, I would have throttled Anelka at half time for the number of sloppy, mis-hit passes he kept spraying to the right flank.

    Still, there’s the basis of a high quality young side there, aided by at least two premium-quality imports in Moreno and Drogba.

  2. DKB2

    23/07/2012 at 18:53

    Do Evergrande have a way around thew 3 man rule now as well or is it only an addition to the squad? Moreno seems to have revitalised Shenhua no end, this season is over no doubt but the next will be interesting.

    • shanghai ultra

      23/07/2012 at 19:27

      Evergrande cos a special dispensation, they are allow a maxium of 7 foreign players in their squad because they are in the ACL. Non-ACL teams, ie everyone else, is only allowed 5 in the squad. The rules for the number of players on the pitch at once remain the same for all teams, that is, four foreigners, one of whom must be from an asian country. Joel Griffiths is Shenhua’s Asian.

  3. Donald

    23/07/2012 at 22:11

    First draw of the season after 18 games, I’m not sure what to make of it! In my jet-lagged state I was watching it on the internet, the ground looked busier than normal though?

    • bcheng

      24/07/2012 at 00:25

      I thought so too, but attendance only slightly over 11k.

    • Damian Jones

      24/07/2012 at 12:22

      Yes, there were around 20,000 in the ground. We got there 2 hours before kick-off and laughed at touts offering tickets for 200rmb ………….. only to find out that the fixture had sold out. A bit shocked we wandered over to the shop/restaurant area to get some beers and bide our time.
      As kick-off approached we were still looking at 100rmb per ticket but managed to get some for 85rmb about 5 mins after th game started.
      A strange mixture of fans in the stadium indeed: You had about 60 Shenhua fans in the away block, some more in the side stand we were in along with a fair number of people wearing Hengda tops and even more wearing Chelsea tops. There were probably more Fuli fans there than usual as well.
      I really like the University Town Stadium. A nice, relaxing place to watch a game.

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