Following a jumped-up reserve match in Shanghai, Shenhua’s first team return to real action with their second trip to Guangzhou in a week to take on the CSL’s top side in a mouthwaterng clash.
Last Time Out
Shenhua produced their most bittersweet performance of the season in dominating the second half to snatch a draw with Guangzhou R&F. Their season was summed up in a microcosm in that game — a limp start and self-inflicted damage followed up with a gutsy and classy fightback which, while enjoyable, wasn’t enough to walk away with anything other than slightly salvaged pride and a whole bunch of “what if”s.
Evergrande meanwhile responded to a limp Canton derby showing by going to Henan Jianye and absolutely battering the hosts, with Barrios’ winner and the 2-1 scoreline barely reflecting their dominance in creating chances to maintain a four-point lead at the top of the table.
Causes for Optimism…
So that man Drogba really is a Shenhua player, and one with some match fitness and a whole lot of drive to boot. While it would be slight hyperbole to say Drogba turned the game on its head (Moreno waking up at half time and the introduction of Cao Yunding also helped), his effect on Shenhua’s dynamism and positivity can’t be underrated — if he remains fit and firing, Drogba is a player to dominate in any league in the world for the next year or two.
Cao Yunding’s quality and composure also shone through in yet another goalscoring why-do-you-keep-benching-me cameo — but those benchings bring us on nicely to the next section.
… and for Concern
While the musical chairs may have relented a little, Batista now has to contend with the continued dilemma of fitting square pegs into round holes. Anelka plus Moises into one non-Asian spot does not go — while reason dictates the experienced center-half who’s formed a solid pairing with Dai Lin should start over the roaming Jan Molby wannabe, good luck dropping that ego and that paycheck.
Cao Yunding into a 4-3-3 also doesn’t go: this is a worrying problem for Shenhua. Cao is a top-drawer modern #10, absolutely lethal and wonderfully intuitive in the areas in and around the penalty box. The team itself has responded very well to a balanced 4-3-3 in recent weeks, however, and Cao simply isn’t the same player when shunted out to the wing or dropped deeper back, and the ‘false 9’ role is likely to be taken up by Didier Drogba demonstrating the real deal for the next season or more.
That midfield three itself is also a little worrying — Yu Tao, Jiang Kun and Moreno looked a little too attacking against R&F, and will surely be required to show more defensive solidity here — North Terrace Preview would personally opt for perhaps both of the magnificently-named Wang Shouting and Zheng Kaimu — although dropping both of the old guard would again be a very big call.
And the fixture computer’s work doesn’t ease up for Shenhua either — while they may be lacking some of that all-conquering aura, Evergrande remain a solid side from 1-11 with impressive strength in depth, and Muriqui, when staying on his feet, terrorized the Shenhua defence back in the return fixture at Hongkou.
Watch Out For
Some very big calls for Batista. Don’t be surprised to see Anelka out wide, leaving Moises, Cao and a holding midfielder or two on the bench.
While every game over the next month is a big one for Drogba, it’s also a big one for the rest of Shenhua — however great one man may be, football remains a team game and there were early signs of a disturbing tendency to hit it to Drogba and hope against R&F — while this might work out more often than not, Shenhua fans will hope to see more of a tendency towards the occasional hints of interplay with Drogba offered by Cao and Feng Renliang.
You don’t win titles and get through the group stages of the ACL without having something about you, and Evergrande remain the team to beat in China.
This should be another addition to the CSL’s recent series of top-quality, high-entertainment affairs. League position and logic dictate that a home win is on the cards — not to mention the fact that Evergrande have bossed Shenhua in each of their encounters since returning to the top-flight, with the Hongkou boys often looking scared to attack for fear of the merciless counter.
Still, where there’s Drogba and Moreno, there’s hope…
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