Nicolas Anelka put in a scintillating performance and Didier Drogba opened his Chinese Super League account as Shanghai Shenhua annihilated Hangzhou Greentown 5-1 at Hongkou Stadium last night.
The much-maligned French striker finally showed why Shenhua are paying him around 175,000 UK pounds a week by setting up two goals and putting in a man-of-the match performance, as Drogba himself acknowledged in an after match interview.
“I have to say, of course, I scored two goals but the best player on the pitch was Anelka today, he was fantastic, he was everywhere, defending, attacking, that is why he is our captain.”
Drogba may have been saying the right thing to support his under-pressure old mate, but the plaudits were deserved. Shenhua lined up missing the suspended Wu Xi at right back – so it was musical chairs time again, centre-back Wang Lin slotted in on the right in place of Wu. Anelka fitted in behind Drogba upfront, Moises again the fall guy, sitting on the bench since four non-Asians into one CSL team go not. Qiu Tianyi started at the back, Jiang Kun came back into the team alongside Yu Tao and Moreno in midfield. There was no room in the starting line-up for Cao Yunding or last week’s goalscorer against Guangzhou Evergrande, Song Boxuan.
Hongkou was bursting point with 24,365 in attendance – or at least if reports that the police limited attendance at the 33,000 capacity venue to 24 thousand mark. It was clear that large tracts of seats near the 1,000-plus Hangzhou travelling support had not been put on sale, along with other small triangles and corners of seats around the edges. If true it is unfortunate that more seats were put on sale – your correspondent learned of at least two fans who were sold fake tickets from street scalpers. They were unable to find any more tickets on sale.
Once the match kicked off, Drogba’s Hongkou debut got off to a bad start. Qiu Tianyi should have done better than let Brazilian striker Mazola out-muscle him on the byline at the edge of the Shenhua box. This let the Hangzhou attacker play a square ball which on-loan fullback Bai Jiajun did well to block, but the ball fell to midfielder Feng Gang who had a relatively easy job to knock it home in the 7th minute.
This early goal however just fired up Shenhua, and barely 90 seconds later the home side were on level terms. Moreno played a through ball forward onto the left side of the box which Drogba ran onto before drilling a low shot into the bottom corner of the net. It had taken Drogba just 8-and-half minutes to score a goal at Hongkou, something a certain other big-money forward has yet to do after two-thirds of a season.
However, credit where credit is due, Anelka appeared to be everywhere in this game, seemingly all over the pitch and dropping deep to collect the ball. Hangzhou had no answer, the best they could muster in the first half hour or so after scoring was a sly dive in the box from Mazola in the 23rd minute, who was booked for his trouble as well as being squashed in the aftermath by Shenhua keeper, and new father during the week, Wang Dalei.
But if the game would later be remembered for the contribution of Shenhua’s foreign legion, let the record show that arguably the best goal of the night was made in China. Shanghai-born midfielder Yu Tao sent a cracking long-range pass up the right channel which fell right into the path of Shenhua’s man from Tianjin, Feng Renliang. The winger showed great skill to bring the ball under control whilst running at full speed, before unleashing a low shot which Greentown Goalie Jiang Bo couldn’t quite get down to on time.
Anelka was looking completely unlike the listless and lethargic player of the first half of the season and was spraying all manner of forward through balls pretty much from an attacking midfield position, Drogba almost getting on one of those just a few minutes after half time. Hangzhou barely had any chances, perhaps intimidated by the strength of the opposition’s forward line they tried to play a possession game.
The second half was largely a midfield battle with Shenhua looking much more likely to score, but with 83 minutes gone, it looked like Shenhua’s final Yangtze Delta Derby was going to end a as a victory much more comfortable than the 2-1 scoreline would suggest. However, in a late deluge of goals, it was not to be that way, mostly thanks to some inspired and unselfish play of Nicolas Anelka.
In the 84th minute, Wang Lin was bundled off the ball on the right but Drogba managed to keep possession for Shenhua. With three defenders closing in, and the goalkeeper narrowing the angle, everyone wondered what could the Ivorian do? His answer was a sublime finish from a tight angle right in front of an ecstatic north terrace. Drogba turned his back to the ultras and pointed to his trademark number 11 shirt, to another huge roar from the Blue Devils.
With victory now in the bag, it was showtime for Shenhua. Just two minutes later, Anelka turned and released an inch-perfect forward pass to Giovanni Moreno, putting the Columbian one-on-one with the keeper. He made no mistake to slot it home and clamber over the advertising hoardings in front of the fans to start the party for Shenhua – 4-1.
And, in the closing minutes, the destruction continued as Anelka cut in from the left, before playing a simple ball to Drogba at the edge of the box. Anelka stayed stationary, making sure he was still onside, before getting the ball back from Drogba. Hangzhou’s offside trap sprung, Anelka could have finished the rout by himself, but instead he chose to play a ball to an onrushing substitute Joel Griffiths who couldn’t miss – 5-1 and a goal in the Australian’s first competitive game in over two months. Griffiths and Drogba celebrated with Anelka, both pointing to the mercurial former Chelsea star who had finally come good after what seemed like an awful long time of looking like a bog standard CSL import.
The story of the game for many would be Drogba’s first two goals for the club, but as the TV clip below reveals, it said it all that the north terrace chanted “Nico! Nico!” for the first time this season as a smiling Anelka led his team-mates to bow in front of the fans – something he famously neglected to do before.
At any rate, it was gratifying for those of a blue persuasion to finally see the team resemble one which has had absurd amounts of money lavished upon it. The stats for the game were telling – Shenhua didn’t dominate posession (52.9%) but they had 15 shots with 8 on target, compared with Hangzhou’s 7 and 5, corners were 9 and 3 respectively. Regardless of the figures, it was one of the most complete Shenhua performances your correspondent has ever witnessed at Hongkou.
From now on it, expect a steady stream of Shenhua victories and a belated march up the table. Some on the terraces were running a book on whether Shenhua will remain unbeaten for the rest of the season. With ten games left, such a streak is a must if the team wants to grab the small chance they have of landing third in the league and an ACL spot next year.
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