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Thou shalt not win: Beijing’s ceaseless Hongkou punishment continues

On a wet and steamy summer’s evening, the gods overlooking Hongkou Stadium threw down a cruel and unusual punishment on Beijing Guoan as a badly under-strength Shanghai Shenhua side grabbed a 3-1 victory in the China Derby, despite their opponents controlling much of the game.

Goals from Song Boxuan, Cao Yunding and Moises gave the home side a most unexpected lead on Saturday night, before a scant consolation came for the visitors in the form of a late penalty conversion from Wang Xiaolong.

Games between Beijing and Shanghai never need any added spice, but this match just happened to be played on one of the most exciting days in the entire history of Shanghainese football – the arrival of Didier Drogba.

An impressive number of fans had gotten up much earlier than they normally would on a Saturday morning to greet the Drog at 8am. Pudong Airport had surely never seen anything like the scenes which unfolded as the legendary striker stepped into the arrival hall, it was something akin to a religious experience.

Seeing the great man arrive hyped up the hundreds of Shenhua supporters who made it out there, and those who didn’t make it would get caught up in the excitement during the day as Drogba fever swept the city. Newspapers, TV, radio, the Internet – Drogba’s face was everywhere in Shanghai and the mood was on of extreme anticipation.

Even if everyone knew Drogba wouldn’t be playing, upon arriving at Hongkou for the match it was clear this was no ordinary China Derby. An atmosphere of excitement beyond even the usual pre-match buzz hung in the air, despite the tropical rain and thunder which had hit the city earlier in the afternoon and continued at times during the game.

Beijing’s team bus arrived about two hours before kickoff, and was roundly booed by the large amount of fans milling around outside the stadium before the match. As the bus pulled into the stadium, things started to look a bit hairy as hundreds of fans run towards the front entrance to start the ubiquitous “Guoan SB” chants right next to the team coach, as another group in front of the stadium stamped on a Guoan jersey.

By the time the match started, the atmosphere was at fever pitch. Captain Yu Tao, Shenhua’s longest-serving player, presented Drogba with a Shenhua shirt on the pitch before the match kicked off. Didier was in the house of Hongkou at last, and his mere presence inspired the home fans to an even greater level of support than usual.

Your correspondent also got caught up in the upbeat mood, appearing to rashly predict a 3-0 victory in a pre-match book being run – a prediction which was met with disbelief and ridicule by his Shenhua-supporting match companions.

Drogba’s in da house

Much had been made before the match of Beijing’s abject failure to record a victory at Hongkou even once, in 18 years of Chinese professional club football. However, with Shenhua having just endured their worst ever first half of a season in their whole history, and the team badly hit by injuries and suspensions, Guoan would surely never get a better chance.

Shenhua lined up without a recognized striker of any kind. Joel Griffiths sat out yet again with a knee injury, Anelka was also injured, plus Yu Tao was suspended. The only other first team striker, Mattieu Manset, left the club a fortnight ago to return to Reading in England. So, the number of unfamiliar faces was at an all-time high, with several players either making their debut for Shenhua, or playing in their first China Derby.

Regular readers of Shenhua match reports on this site will be familiar with the recurring “positional musical chairs” joke from this correspondent. Just to make sure everyone is on the same page, Wikipedia reveals that this children’s game can also be used as “a metaphorical way of describing any activity where items or people are repeatedly and usually pointlessly shuffled among various locations”

When the music stopped, Jiang Kun was the unlucky loser, the midfielder finding himself lone striker in lieu of Anelka.  On-loan from Shanghai East Asia defender Bai Jiazun made his debut at left back, midfielders Wang Guanyi and Wang Shouting were both playing in their first China Derby, as of course was Shenhua’s new midfield playmaker Giovanni Moreno.

The opening stages of the match belonged to Guoan, and whilst the visitors did not really threaten, with no strikers on the pitch and a very inexperienced line-up, one couldn’t help but wonder where a Shenhua goal would come from.

The answer came in the 19th minute with Shenhua’s first opportunity of the game. Jiang Kun received the ball from a throw in to send an excellent first time pass down the wing to Feng Renliang. The winger put in a low cross to onrushing Song Boxuan who slid in to knock the ball past Guoan keeper Huo Sen and put the boys in blue ahead against the run of play.

The scorer would have to leave the pitch in the 32nd minute due to injury, being replaced by Cao Yunding. The pint-sized play maker looked uncomfortable playing on the left wing in Song’s position, but nevertheless would make an important contribution to the match later.

Beijing also rang the changes just three minutes later, boss Jamie Pacheco gave the club’s big new signing, Freddie Kanoute his debut, replacing defender Zhang Xinxin. The men in green kept up the pressure for the rest of the first half, but to no avail, going in one behind at half time.

Shenhua emerged looking confident and attempted to take the game to Beijing. Few in the stadium were really expecting a second goal, but Shenhua were gifted a gilt-edged opportunity when a huge bungle from Beijing defenders Zhou Ting and Xu Yunlong left Cao Yunding to steal the ball. The Shanghainese midfielder made Beijing pay for the laughable error with an ice cool finish and his third goal of the season.

Beijing were clearly shell-shocked to find themselves two goals behind, and stepped up a gear in an effort to get back in the match, and on the hour mark, Freddy Kanoute was unlucky not to get on the scoresheet with a fantastic scissors kick which hit the post, amidst several other good opportunities for the visitors.

Shenhua were not finished with the match yet however, and – football aficionados take our your notepads and jot this down – we saw a goal scored from a short corner. Feng Renliang played the ball to Giovanni Moreno, who toyed with the ball briefly on the touchline, before playing a simple pass to Cao Yunding. Cao showed fantastic awareness to backheel the ball to an onrushing Wu Xi, whose strike hit Guoan defender Zhou Ting. Unfortunately for him, the rebound fell to Brazilian defender Moises who made no mistake from short-range – 3-0 Shenhua was the scarcely believable scoreline with 75 minutes gone, with three points surely in the bag.

In an act of desperation, Guoan brought on former Shenhua forward Mao Jianqing in the 75th minute, a man who has scored almost half of all the goals he has scored since leaving Shenhua  at the end of 2009 against his former club.

Mao has been on thorn in Shenhua’s side on several occasions, and this time his impact came in the form of a penalty he won for his side after being taken down by Wang Dalei. Wang Xiaolong stepped up and made no mistake, but it was an academic goal since it was scored in the 82nd minute.  It also ensured your correspondent’s pre-match prediction ended in vintage Scottish style – heroic failure.

There wasn’t enough time for Beijing to scare Shenhua by scoring another, and Hongkou erupted with a massive cheer as it finished 3-1.

What can one say about this game? Victody was not expected by the majority of Shenhua fans, but the consensus seemed to be a scoring draw – few thought Beijing’s miserable winless record at Hongkou would end, and that outcome indeed came to pass.

Beijing will play far worse this season and win games… but the Hongkou Hoodoo is a powerful force and Shenhua took their chances with aplomb. Despite controlling much of the match, Beijing didn’t use the ball effectively enough and badly under-estimated their opponents, failing to play an away match strategy in a fixture they have a terrible record in.

The visitors played an attacking and controlling game in an attempt to subdue their opponents, but failed to account for the powerful effect of the 12th man as the deafening Hongkou atmosphere, and Didier Drogba in the stands, who spurred on a home side who had plenty to prove.

Following on from last week’s 2-2 draw away to Jiangsu Sainty, Shenhua answered Drogba’s statement earlier in the day at a press conference that the team “had to win” without him. This result was a massive confidence boost – Shenhua showed what they can do without Drogba, Anelka, or Griffiths, and scored three goals in a match for the first time this season.

Shenhua are now on an upwards trajectory, with Drogba now on board, and Moreno pulling the strings in midfield, a top six finish surely beckons.

After the match, the celebrations spilled out next to the metro station as always, put police stepped in to stamp out two flares which had been lit in celebration. However, the Blue Devils had other accessories to amuse themselves with, stuffed toy turtles, representing the animal which is traditionally used as a term to mock Beijing Guoan fans. Several of the soft toys were thrown around in the crowd, to huge ironic cheers, with one landing at your correspondent feet, who, in an act of sheer spontaneity, stamped repeatedly on the turtles head to wild cheers from the surrounding Shenhua fans.

The tomfoolery carried on late into the night as fans converged on Tan Hotpot for another spicy meal, endless beers and victory songs. It was a much-needed night for all of a Shanghai persuasion.

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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