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North Terrace Preview: Shanghai Shenhua v Hangzhou Greentown

It’s Shenhua’s fourth and final Yangtze Delta derby of the 2012 campaign this weekend, with both the visiting Hangzhou Greentown and Shenhua themselves looking in better shape than the last time these two met.

Last Time Out

Shenhua came away from their second Guangzhou trip in a week with a creditable draw from a high-octane contest of the CSL’s financial titans. Giovanni Moreno opened what fans hope will be a long and profitable Shenhua account with a long-range equalizer to seal a 2-2 draw in a very open game — particularly open due to Sergio Batista’s surprising call to go with an attack-minded but defensively flimsy 4-4-2 lineup.

Greentown continued their own, better-established league table recovery by taking a share of the spoils at home to Guangzhou R&F, their 2-2 draw leaving Takeshi Okada’s men in ninth spot.

Causes for Optimism…

The attacking verve and spirit shown in recent weeks by a previously limp and clueless Shenhua has as much to do with two South American imports as with their African blockbuster — with Moreno pulling the strings in midfield and Batista instilling belief from the sidelines along with a willingness to change the game with substitutions, the boys from Hongkou are showing encouraging shoots of recovery for a return to the right end of the table in 2013.

There should also be an electric atmosphere for Drogba’s home debut and another derby match — indeed, North Terrace Preview is genuinely left cursing an upcoming tropical sojourn which makes attendance at this one impossible.

… and for Concern

After what must have been adrenaline alone carrying him through a barnstorming debut, Didier Drogba looked every inch a ring-rusty old stager who hasn’t player or trained for the whole summer. It may take another month of fixtures before we see the Ivorian truly hit his stride.

The brunt of the goalscoring burden has been taken up by Shenhua’s midfield and centre-halves as a matter of necessity – Joel Griffiths played against Man United in last week’s friendly match, but wasn’t anywhere to be seen against Evergrande. Meanwhile, Nicolas Anelka continues to wander around aimlessly. Indeed, Anelka’s last (and second) goal for Shenhua came in the reverse fixture – that’s a full half-season since the league’s most salaried forward hit the back of the net, and the fixtures are beginning to run out for a debut goal at Hongkou in 2012.

Watch Out For

We’re talking tactics again, folks – or, more specifically, line-ups. In many ways the 4-4-2 deployed against Evergrande might prove less heart-in-mouth against teams lacking Muriqui and Conca to exploit space deep in the attacking half of the field. Moreno is a willing hassler and very comfortable in possession in his own half, but a born tackler the boy is not — and there’s a limit to how many holes even the redoubtable Yu Tao can plug single-handedly.

A 4-3-3 featuring Yu and Wang Shouting supporting the more creative talents of Moreno, and feeding the Drog with Song Boxuan and Feng Renliang supporting out wide still looks to this correspondent to be the natural Shenhua line-up — while that does leave no place in the side for Anelka, it’s becoming more difficult by the week for even Zhu Jun or brother Claude to justify the starting role of a man who has scored less recently, and with much more game time, than Mathieu-flippin-Manset.

The sharp-eyed will also notice that the wonderful Cao Yunding doesn’t fit into a 4-3-3 — this is a genuinely wrenching concern for Shenhua in the medium-term. How do you fit your best young player into a system he doesn’t appear suited to?

The Verdict

While the progress made under Okada has seen Hangzhou recover from a torpid start to the season to sit comfortably mid-table, their midweek cup exertions tip the balance towards it being difficult to avoid opting for the fairytale story of a Drogba goal and home win here — Shenhua to win by two or three goals to one, although not without their traditional heart-in-mouth moments along the way.

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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