A disappointing 0-0 draw was the final score at Hongkou Stadium on Saturday night as Dalian successfully thwarted Shenhua’s multi-million international strike force.
Shenhua boss Sergio Batista told local media after he was “disgusted” by Dalian’s time-wasting tactics, but in fact Shenhua played poorly and lacked ideas in a match they could have lost had luck gone against them.
The big doubt before the game was Didier Drogba – would he play after appearing for the Ivory Coast midweek in Moscow in a friendly against Russia? He started the match but looked rusty after his international exertions. Nicolas Anelka lined-up just behind him in he hole, as the rest of the team-sheet showed no changes to the one which drew 0-0 away to Tianjing with the exception of Zhang Kaimu taking the place of Jiang Kun this time around.
The match kicked off to another relatively big crowd of 22,356. Again, swathes of seats had not been put on sale, despite word on the street that 80 and 150 rmb tickets had all sold out days before the match. Ticket touts outside the stadium tried to sell briefs for 200rmb, but it wasn’t clear for where.
Those who did make it to the game were treated to a miss of the season candidate in the 12th minute. Anelka won the ball in the midfield and fed Drogba with a low forward ball. The Ivorian threaded it back to Anelka who could have scored without too much difficulty, but passed it to Feng Renliang, who appeared to be surprised to get the chance, and fluffed the ball over the bar when facing an empty net. It was a shocking error.
A few minutes later Dalian had their first real effort on goal, Quan Lei shooting from distance on the left side, but Shenhua goalie Wang Dalei expertly plucked the ball out of the air with a great save.
Both sides were slugging it out in midfield and restricted each other to long-range efforts, with Yu Tao coming close for Shenhua in the first half. Dalian came closest to scoring with one of those, Bai Jiajun the hero for the home side in being on the line to clear Brazilian striker Adriano’s fierce shot from the edge of the box off the line. 0-0 half-time in a fairly tepid first 45.
Drogba had a couple of chances near the start of the second half, the most notable around the 57th minute when he raced up the middle of the field and elected to shoot rather than pass to Feng Renliang was waiting in support. Dalian keeper Zhang Chong was equal to the task however.
Shenhua boss Batista brought on Joel Griffiths on the hour mark, but unfortunately for the Aussie his first contribution was to block a goal-bound Gio Moreno shot off the line which had fallen to the Columbian following a Drogba cross.
In the 75th minute Shenhua narrowly avoided disaster, when only desperate defending from Wu Xi and Qiu Tianyi kept out Bulgarian striker Martin Kamburov who had splendidly brought the ball under control in the middle of the box following a lofted pass.
That was Dalian’s last opportunity of the game, Gio Moreno should have done better with a free kick just outside the opponents box in the closing stages, but the Columbian’s weakly struck kick was easily saved and punctuated what was a very poor performance from the hitherto season-changing signing.
There was still time for Dalian keeper Zhang Chong to waste time after predictably going to ground following an aerial challenge from Drogba, but there was no need, Shenhua could have played all night and not have scored, 0-0 it finished and the air was positively dripping with frustration and disappointment.
It’s easy to say Drogba was tired from his midweek Ivory Coast game, and he indeed did look fatigued. But the bigger failure performance-wise was Gio Moreno who had a bit of a stinker. He has been the real reason behind Shenhua’s now 7-game unbeaten run, and his poor show affected the side accordingly against Dalian.
So with Drogba here now, why aren’t Shenhua winning more games? Well the last two matches saw the boys in blue fail to score twice, because both opponents set out to defend from the start. Also, the 5-1 victory over Hangzhou a couple of weeks back made the whole CSL sit-up and notice – Drogba had arrived and Shenhua’s opponents have had time to prepare their defences. The “beast can be caged” is how the Chinese media have put it, and that is what happened in Tianjin and against Dalian on Saturday night.
It doesn’t take a genius to work out Shenhua has a rather unbalanced and top-heavy team. With three foreign strikers, an attack-minded Gio Moreno, with wingers Feng Renliang and Song Boxuan, Shenhua are still lacking the defensive midfielder they have lacked for quite some time. The upshot of all this is that Shenhua’s best outfield player this season, Cao Yunding, has spent way too much time on the bench recently, one assumes because he’s also an attacking midfielder like Moreno.
But Cao turned many game this season, scoring all his four goals this season coming off the bench and Batista needs to find a way to include him in the side because his range of passing and creativity. He’s no use on the bench and there would be plenty of room for him in a midfield featuring the hard-tackling young Zheng Kaimu and veteran anchorman Yu Tao.
In short, Shenhua’s problems are tactical and a result of a misguided transfer policy. Without some adjustment in the middle of the pitch from Batista, expect more CSL teams to put up the shutters against Shenhua who will struggle unless all of their foreign stars are putting in a serious shift.
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