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North Terrace Preview: Shandong Luneng v Shanghai Shenhua

It’s time for yet another mid-table clash, Shenhua fans. Can the boys from Hongkou come away with all three points from Jilin? Luneng’s goals for and against columns at least suggest that we shouldn’t see a third consecutive stalemate.

Last Time Out

Shanghai Shenhua’s home fixture with Dalian Shide showed that lessons had been learned from their nil-nil draw in Tianjin the previous round — sadly, rather than Shenhua developing a plan B to break down a defensive side, it was Dalian who’d learned and copied Tianjin’s two-banks-of-four, happy-for-a-draw, timewasting-from-the-start attitude.

Shenhua have few grounds for complaint, however — a limp performance lacking in guts and guile means that they could have played all night and not found a way to seriously threaten the Shide goal.

Shandong come into this game following a creditable midweek draw in Guizhou which might leave them slight favourites to progress to the cup final. Their last CSL fixture was a little less happy, following up a 4-0 stomping of Beijing Guoan by themselves shipping four goals against R&F down in Guangzhou.

Causes for Optimism…

Shenhua should go into this game a little fresher due to their early cup exit — indeed, their last game against an opponent fresh from a cup game resulted in Hangzhou Greentown being put to the sword to the tune of five goals.

Even since adding the experienced Du Wei, Luneng’s otherwise young defence has continued to ship goals — Shandong score too many goals to be in the bottom half of the table, but have trouble keeping the opposition out too.

… and for Concern

Following one game in which he decided to be a real footballer, Nicolas Anelka has returned somewhat to the flouncing enigma we’ve grown accustomed to in Shanghai. Drogba is still finding his fitness — a fitness which international travel doesn’t help. And Gio Moreno may have been reading his own press here on — the Colombian was a bad parody of himself against Shide: carelessly giving the ball away to players who deigned to approach him while he flicked the ball around in his own half, spraying Hollywood ball after Hollywood ball to nobody in particular, and starting a fight for good measure.

With the big-money foreigners not firing, Cao Yunding relegated to the bench and Feng Renliang rediscovering his rabbit-in-the-headlights 2011 form, Shenhua were again indebted to the quality of Wang Dalei and Dai Lin to provide their better performances last weekend.

Watch Out For

One of the reasons Shenhua are becoming an increasingly easy team to play for a draw against remains the midfield.

Moreno in a 4-3-3 poses an interesting question — while he’s dangerous going forwards and does make a few runs, you can’t really describe the #37 as an attacking midfielder. His modus operandi is much closer to that of a deep-lying playmaker, beginning moves from deep and recycling the ball, not unsimilarly to the languid class with which Andrea Pirlo bossed Germany out of Euro 2012.

Shenhua’s problem against Dalian was a very flat midfield three — alongside Moreno, Zheng Kaimu is a promising young destroyer, but the boy gets a nosebleed when he crosses the half way line. Yu Tao is also a more defensive than dynamic player these days — Shenhua were thus left with a lot of space and lack of runners between their defence and forward line.

Sergio Batista’s experimentation with his midfield has been interesting to watch — an overly attacking midfield didn’t see enough of the ball up in Tianjin, and an overly cautious one couldn’t do enough with it back at Hongkou. North Terrace Preview would go for Cao, Moreno and one of Zheng Kaimu or Yu Tao. As ever, the Shenhua teamsheet will make for interesting reading.

The Verdict

Warning: optimism ahead.

The CSL is known for having one of the more pronounced home/away form splits in football. Shenhua remain very much a work in progress. Luneng are a growing side under Henk van Cate, and have scored nine goals in their last three CSL fixtures.

However, Shandong play an open game, as evidenced by their goals for and against tallies. The Greentown game should serve as a reminder that while Shenhua need to develop a Plan B against cagier opposition, their Plan A can be devestating against sides who have a go at them.

For this reason, North Terrace Preview is boldly predicting an away win in the region of 3-1. Any bets made on this result will not, however, be refunded.

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 can now be found enjoying/enduring matchdays on Hongkou’s North Terrace along with the rest of the infamous Shenhua Element Crew.

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