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North Terrace Preview: Shanghai Shenhua v Beijing Guoan

Shenhua’s biggest fixture remaining this season comes a little early for Didier Drogba, but the time may be right for a resurgent Shenhua squad. Our Shenhua fan’s-eye preview is looking forward to the big one.

Last Time Out

Having been given no chance even by followers with a much stronger prediction record than North Terrace Preview, Shenhua continued to confound expectations by putting in possibly their performance of the season by bossing a top-drawer draw at high-flying Jiangsu Sainty. Goals from each center-back cancelled out two Danalache penalties — one a little soft, the second so flaccid that you’d have to invest in Viagra to justify  it.

Guoan bounced back to the disappointment of losing a classy game to Evergrande with a 1-0 home victory against Guangzhou R&F. With not only the win over a rival, but also the debuts of Kanoute and Joffre Guerron, Beijing made a statement of intent as they regained momentum in the fight for second.

Causes for Optimism…

While it was difficult to make judgements in the wash-out of a performance in Qingdao, his performance in Nanjing suggests not only that Giovanni Moreno is the real deal, but also that he’s not just over in Shanghai for a paycheck and is quite willing to pick up a big game by the scruff of the neck where it’s needed. Displaying drive, close control, creativity and dead-ball ability, Moreno put in a display reminiscent of another big-money South American CSL playmaker. If he can stay fit, motivated and consistent, Moreno may be set to eviscerate CSL defences just as well as Conca has.

It’s important to highlight the collective strength showed in Nanjing, also — Shenhua played with a clear structure. Yu Tao deputizing again at left-back and Anelka continuing to interpret “striker” as “free role” were the only positional oddities — Batista’s 4-3-3 showed good balance, with one ball-winner and two ball-players in the middle of the park, and two genuine wingers stretching the game.

… and for Concern

Anelka might be a recurring theme in these pieces, but North Terrace Preview continues to pine for Luis Salmeron and, whisper it, would even start comedy fatman Manset ahead of Anelka, purely for the positional play — having two ball-playing centre-mids and two genuine wingers is of somewhat limited use when your nominal #9 runs and stands two feet away from them EVERY SINGLE TIME THEY GET THE BALL. This might be a revolutionary tactic, but Shenhua may want to think about having a forward or two in the penalty box when breaking forward. While this is an issue Drogba will undoubtedly fix, it does raise the question of where this then moves Anelka (North Terrace Preview will volunteer to pay his airfare if any clubs are interested in a deal) — and in any case, Drogba is not featuring in this game, other than half-time entertainment. Incidentally, this fan will likely miss the half-time pitch walk in favor of a half-time beer dash — footballers are valuable for what they do during competitive action rather than outside of it.

It should also be pointed out, in the interests of balance, that Guoan are a seriously good football team who will likely again finish the season as “best of the rest” behind Evergrande’s dream team and who play with a fair amount of the verve and dynamism going forwards that one would typically associate with a Shanghai team.

Watch Out For

A derby is a time for cool heads — given the disastrous first half of the season, Shenhua have so little to play for outside of the cup that the two Yantgtze Delta derbies and this game are in many ways the only meaningful games remaining in 2012, and as such the emotions in these games are intensely under the magnifying glass. The hot-headed youth of the Shenhua side showed through at times in Nanjing, not helped by both Jiang Kun and Yu Tao getting booked for dissent while Anelka waddled around the other end of the pitch daydreaming about ways to spend this week’s bounty — Shenhua most hope for more of a middle-ground of responsibility from their older heads in this game.

The Verdict

Tricky one to call, this — Beijing have never won at Hongkou, but history is there to be changed and this correspondent has already seen a rancid Tianjin side break their Hongkou hoodoo in 2012, along with England doing a number on Sweden to break a winless competitive streak pre-dating the colour TV.

Shenhua have been ten parts Mr. Hyde to one part Dr. Jekyll this season — if the focused, collective side which overcame Guizhou and surprised Sainty turns up, then you’d have to make the home side favorites — if not, it will be a very tense evening for the Hongkou faithful.

North Terrace Preview once exchanged pleasantries with Mark Lawrenson in a Ukrainian bar, and is playing it safe by following the example of the Internet’s other least-accurate football predictions and hedging bets on a 1-1 draw here.

Steve hosts the Chinese Football Podcast, having joined the WEF team as correspondent for Shanghai Shenhua, the side he has followed since moving to Shanghai in 2010. Exiled from the Victorian town-centre idyll of Feethams along with his childhood football team, Steve spent many an (un)happy year on Hongkou's North Terrace along with the Shenhua Element Crew and Blue Devils before relocating to Sydney from where he continues to follow the Chinese game from afar.

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