A half-season on from one of their lowest ebbs, can Shanghai Shenhua continue their progress into the CSL’s “great entertainers” in the north while avoiding an Ars-kicking?
Last Time Out
Shenhua saved their most complete performance of the season, and their first goal glut for many a year, for their final Yangtze delta derby of the season, destroying Hangzhou Greentown 5-1 in a performance this correspondent is still sore from being unable to attend. Sergio Batista showed his Argentinean roots by selecting a very attack-minded midfield featuring both Gio Moreno and Jiang Kun as ball-players, with Anelka and Feng Renliang creating space behind the one-man frontline that is Didier Drogba.
In addition to goals from Feng and Drogba, long-suffering Shenhua fans were even treated to two of the rarest sights of this Shanghai summer – Joel Griffiths being fit enough to take to a football field, and Nic Anelka being motivated enough to remember he was a fairly handy footballer not so long ago.
Teda, with Sjoerd Ars a danger throughout, continued their own strong mid-season surge, moving into seventh in the table with a hard-fought win at Guangzhou R&F. Not many teams have left Guangzhou with all three points this season, and it took a cracking Ars winner to seal the points for Tianjin.
Causes for Optimism…
It’s now five games since the shambolic seaside surrender at Qingdao which marked the nadir of Shenhua’s season – and the recovery from this nadir has been cemented by Batista’s increasing adherence to a traditional Argentinean focus on ball-playing midfielders and quick movement of the ball. For all the samba style of Brazil (which is marketing hype these days anyway – anyone care to name an easy-on-the-eye Brazilian side since ’82?), it’s the short passing and movement based game which the Scots beat Argentina which gets this purist excited.
A flickering into life of Nicolas Anelka and home debut brace for Didier Drogba also stoke the fires of optimism – with a strong attacking case including Feng, Cao Yunding, Griffiths, and Song Boxuan to choose from, Batista seems increasingly determined to win games through force of goals, and leave all those holding midfielder concerns for another day.
…and for Concern
It’s difficult to express just how abysmal Shenhua were in their last meeting with Tianjin – after a cautious start to the season through tough fixtures, the Teda game saw an eminently winnable fixture turn into a watershed moment: no manager, no cohesion, no spirit and no ideas (and virtually no technical staff on the bench). A struggling Tianjin side leaving Shanghai with their first-ever away victory over Shenhua should act as a cautionary tale to all of a Hongkou persuasion – however exciting the present and future may look, disaster is only ever 90 minutes away.
Watch Out For
Feng Renliang. The Tianjin native returns to his home city in a strong run of form, and looking an undroppable choice in Shenhua’s attacking options. While the pace and dribbling have always been there, Feng has worked on his weaker foot and crossing ability this season to develop into a consistently dangerous winger.
Winger isn’t necessarily where North Terrace Preview sees Feng spending his career, however – in addition to the pace and control you’d expect from a winger, Feng has an uncanny knack of finding space and making runs into the centre which see him topping Shenhua’s scoring charts this year. He also shows a willingness to hit the ball early – an under-appreciated quality in goalscorers. Look at the replays of his go-ahead goal against Hangzhou – which the placement may not be perfect, Feng hits the ball hard and early, limiting the keeper’s chances. Those new to the CSL might well see hints of Theo Walcott or Lucas Moura in Feng – a winger who is perhaps at his most dangerous when cutting inside and shooting.
While Tianjin rely fairly heavily on Ars for goals and creativity, their strong defensive record this season befits a team who’re no pushovers, particularly at home – as Beijing Guo’an found out to their cost recently.
While some Shenhua fans may be getting a little carried away with the prospect of an unbeaten run and surge into the third ACL spot (a spot which, in fairness, everybody bar Guizhou seems to be falling over themselves to avoid), North Terrace Preview does see this one as a very winnable fixture, and excellent test of the side ahead of title aspirations for 2013. CSL-winning sides need to turn those hard-fought away games into wins, and this fan sees Shenhua doing just that. Call it a 3-1 Shenhua win, with Ars spanking in a consolation goal.
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