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Game of two halves as Shenhua scrape draw in Shanghai derby

Despite a competent first half performance which saw a fine Didier Drogba goal, Shanghai Shenhua endured an absolutely dreadful second 45 showing to barely escape with their 10-match unbeaten run intact in a 1-1 draw with Shanghai Shenxin on Saturday night.

In a game which left the visiting support livid at the lack of anything wearing blue resembling a football team step onto the pitch in the second half, Shenxin should have taken all three points in a lively Shanghai derby watched by 18,060 fans at Jinshan football stadium.

Although based in the same city, the club’s two grounds are 56km (35 miles) apart, with Jinshan being an affluent suburb right on the very southwestern edge of Shanghai Municipality. By way of comparison, there is 128km (80 miles) between Jinshan and Hangzhou Greentown’s stadiums.

As it turned out, thanks to the big crowd and heavy traffic at our destination, your correspondent took two hours in a convoy of around 12 supporters buses from downtown Shanghai to reach Jinshan – longer than the typical journey to Hangzhou.

The longer than anticipated journey to the outer reaches of the sprawling metropolis meant that the bulk of fans entered the ground barely 30 minutes before kick-off – somewhat tardy by Chinese football fan standards.

Once into the surprisingly compact 30,000 seater football-specific stadium, the atmosphere was up several notches from the last Shanghai Derby – this version of the fixture is something of a work in progress, having now only been played twice since Nanchang moved to Shanghai at the start of this year.

Shenhua coach Sergio Batista named an almost unchanged XI from the one which beat Liaoning so comfortably last week, with the sole exception of Dai Lin making his way back into defence after suspension.  Last week midfielder Yu Tao and young defender Qiu Tianyi held court at the back, so of course the obvious choice was to drop the defender and keep the midfielder in at the back, which was exactly what Batista did as the positional musical chairs continued.

The game was barely a couple of minutes old when Joel Griffiths sent Drogba through with a great ball. Drogba’s first touch took Brazilian defender Johny out of the game, but the centre-half managed to recover. Drogba turned him again and managed to fire off a shot, but it was easily saved and the Ivorian should have done much much better.

Except for a scary clearance in the 5th minute when Zhang Kaimu almost scored an own goal, Shenhua continued to have the upper hand. The visitors opened the scoring when Anelka’s cross from the left floated just above several yellow jerseys in the middle to fall perfectly for Drogba who made no mistake with an accurate finish at the far post. 1-0 , Shenhua were cruising, Drogba was in the mood, Anelka was electric, Shenhua fans were looking forward to a fun derby…

Anelka was calling all the shots and looking more energetic than usual. Next to benefit from his creativity was Griffiths who played an exchange with the Frenchman on the right-wing which ended up with Anelka breaking through into the box, but his placed low show was blocked in the 22nd minute by home keeper Liu Dianzuo.

In the 39th minute, Liu had to look sharp to deny Wu Xi who had a good attempt on target in the middle of the box following Jiang Kun’s neat flick-on. Moments earlier, Jiang had the entire stadium in hoots of laughter after he tried to head a loose ball up field, only for it to fall vertically back down on his head, and then for the ball to fall straight back down on his head once again on his second attempt. But at any rate, Shenhua were ahead and whilst Shenxin had a number of dangerous looking breaks, the visitors went in at the interval good value for their 1-0 lead.

Half-time brought further chances for derby banter, as, in a somewhat misguided pre-planned attempt at romance, a Shenxin fan entered the field to get down on one knee and propose to his girlfriend over the stadium tannoy. Amid loud chants of “divorce” and other rather rude outbursts from the Shenhua fans, the lady in question said yes.

The second half saw the start of one of the most frustrating periods of football your correspondent has ever witnessed Shenhua play. The first half was solid, and the team was generally playing as a unit. But for some odd reason, Shenhua just didn’t show up in the second half. Right from the kick-off, Shenxin took the game to Shenhua and they looked like they would score with each attack.

Shenxin’s Antonio Flavio almost scored with a close range effort in the 51st, but Wang Dalei was equal to it. Shenxin were dominating in the midfield, as Shenhua’s Gio Moreno squandered ball after ball, over-elaborating when a simple pass was all that was needed. The visitors were looking shakier than a recovering alcoholic in a brewery and it was no surprise to anyone when Shenxin equalized in the 61st minute.  Brazilian forward Anselmo expertly controlled a long pass forward on the left channel, beat his man, then delivered a killer low ball for Wang Yun who made no mistake from a couple of yards out.

Wang slid down on his knees right in front of the large travelling support, goading the fans in an act of revenge. He had been widely abused througout the game on account of his status as a former Inter Shanghai player, Shenhua’s erstwhile city rivals who left town in 2006. His actions led to him being singled out for vitriolic abuse for the remainder of the match, and during his pitchside post-game TV interview.

If Shenhua had wind in their sails at this point, the wind would have been knocked out of them, but they did not, so the effect of the goal was to turn an even more spineless and inept performance into one completely lacking any merit whatsoever. Shenxin locked the game down, controlling possession as everyone in a Shenhua shirt seemed to forget how to play football.

Shenhua’s chances of taking three points were looking slim, but in an incredible moment which saw Shenxin his the woodwork twice within seconds, they almost didn’t come away with anything. Wang Yun’s freekick from the left was headed against the bar by a Shenxin attacker, before rebounding kindly to Antonio Flavio who smashed his shot against the crossbar when it looked easier to score, and the chance was lost. Shenhua fans responded to the miss with chants of jiaqiu (fakeball) meaning the game is fixed, but seeing as they don’t come more cynical than Chinese football fans, and that hitting the woodwork twice in quick succession is actually harder than putting the ball over the bar or wide on purpose instead, these chants were groundless and borne out of frustration.

That was the last of the comment worthy action and the game finished 1-1. The Shenhua faithful were furious and chanted jiaqiu en mass over and over again. Word on the terrace was that the Shanghai FA had its annual meeting at Jinshan stadium that weekend, and, keen to see Shanghai have three teams in the CSL next year with Shanghai East Asia looking a good bet for promotion, favours were done to make sure Shenxin didn’t get beat thus boosting their survival chances. But for the same reasons above, and Shenhua’s incompetence, the arguments don’t stack up, football fans the world over accuse referees of bias at the slightest provocation, in China it’s the same except the accusations go ever further.

The club and the Shanghai FA told local media today the accusations were completely without foundation.

The fact of the matter was that Shenhua lost the midfield battle after Shenxin boss Zhu Jiong (a member of Shenhua’s 1995 championship winning squad) noticed Gio Moreno was having a serious off night, and changed his tactics accordingly. Sergio Batista did no such thing, and rather than pull the lanky underperforming Columbian and replace him with the perfectly capable Cao Yunding, sent completely the wrong message by keeping Moreno on the pitch for the entire 90 in what was a serious strategic error.

The match facts also spoke for themselves – 56%-44% possession for Shenxin, 18/6 shots/shots on target to Shenhua’s 9 and 4. It was a game Shenhua deserved to lose.

It seems that regardless of who the manager is at Shenhua this season, similar mistakes have been made no matter if it was Tigana, Anelka or Batista in charge – players played out of position, an unsuitable captain, under-deployment of Shenhua’s native creative force, Cao Yunding, a lack of  confidence, a general lack of fight on the pitch and an inability to overcome setbacks. The Hongkou side need to seriously address the latter problem in their remaining five CSL fixtures this season if their massive investment is not to be a complete waste of money next year.

Shenhua next take on lowly Henan Construction at Hongkou Stadium next Friday night, at 19.45.

A leading international commentator on Chinese football frequently quoted by the world's top media. Offers piercing and resolutely honest insights into the bustling crossroads where football, society, economics and politics meet in contemporary China. Based in Shanghai since 2005, observer of the Chinese game since 2000.



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