First-ever goals from Zhang Kaimu and Bai Jiazhun were the order of the day as Shanghai Shenhua cruised to a 3-0 win over Liaoning at Hongkou Stadium on Saturday night.
It was the first game in three weeks for both clubs following an eventful international break for Shenhua which saw frenzied speculation that Anelka and Drogba would not play for Shenhua again following a boardroom dispute.
However, as predicted to international news sources such as the BBC and the Financial times, sure enough Drogba and Anelka lined up for Shenhua, as did midfield kingpin Giovanni Moreno who had missed his club’s last game, apparently as a casualty of the on-going financial issues at the club.
Alongside the foreign trio, Argentinian boss Sergio Batista welcomed Bai Jiazhun back into the side at left back, and Wu Xi at right back. Musical chairs participant this week was midfielder Yu Tao filling in at centre back for the suspended Dai Lin. He was joined in defence by gangly stopper Qiu Tianyi. In midfield, Zhang Kaimu played in the holding role, whilst Jiang Kun and Moreno sat in front. Griffiths was out on the right-wing, whilst Anelka was roaming around randomly in yet another display of tactical indiscipline on either his or his coach’s part. Drogba was upfront, despite all the hullabaloo in certain uninformed quarters about him never playing for Shenhua again.
Shenhua took control of the game straight from the off, but it was their opponents who got the first good scoring opportunity. Club captain, and Liaoning legend, Zhao Junzhe, floated in a corner from the right, from which Serbian striker Miloš Trifunović struck the crossbar. It was an early warning to Shenhua who bucked up their ideas. But it wasn’t until the 27th minute that the home side got their first clear-cut chance, when Gio Moreno threaded a tasty ball into the path of Drogba.
The burly Ivorian evaded two defenders to get onto the end of the pass and hit a low shot which rolled just wide of the far post – Drogba responded by kicking the other post in frustration at a chance he should have buried.
Shenhua were enjoying most of the first half play, limiting Liaoning to the odd foray forward but nothing too threatening – with the exception of an exciting moment when Trifunović controlled a weak Wu Xi header with his chest before unleashing a stunning 35-yard half-volley which almost dipped just under the bar but for a great save from new China cap Wang Dalei.
Undeterred, Shenhua pressed on and the breakthrough for the Hongkou side finally came in the 38th minute. Anelka’s corner landed in the middle of the Liaoning box and was headed out to the edge of the area, where young midfield enforcer Zhang Kaimu hit an excellent half-volley with his right foot, which sailed through a forest of defenders to nestle in the bottom corner of away keeper Zhang Lu’s net for an impressive finish. It was the 20-year-0ld’s first ever goal for Shenhua and certainly one he will not forget in a hurry.
So Shenhua went in 1-0 up at half-time, a deserved lead for a solid if unspectacular first half display. The second half saw moments of bright play, Gio Moreno was back to his string-pulling self, linking all his team-mates up. The home side threatened to score on several occasions, none more so than in the 48th minute when good work by Drogba and Anelka presented Jiang Kun with a glorious chance in the middle of the box, but he wasted the efforts of his team-mates by ballooning the ball over the bar when it looked easier to score.
Shenhua again came close in the 61st minute when Drogba took Jiang Kun’s pass and had the ball in the net, only for the effort to be ruled offside. As the game drew into its final stage, home fans again had that uncomfortable sensation of knowing Shenhua are not good at holding onto one-goal leads. However, their worries were eased when Bai Jiazhun received the ball in the middle of Liaoning’s half and ran forward unopposed – the defence standing off the pint-sized 21-year-old fullback.
With Drogba and Anelka waiting in dangerous positions, Bai instead elected to let fly with a shot from 25-yards which sailed into the back of the net in off the left hand post. Another first goal and Bai celebrated in a fitting manner, running to the edge of the pitch to embrace the bench in the 85th minute.
The game was now beyond doubt, but there was till time for one last act of goalscoring excellence when Wu Xi’s cross from the right found Drogba in the middle of the box who volleyed the ball home first time. The striker whipped off his shirt and celebrated enthusiastically in front of the north terrace – he had become Shenhua’s top scorer on five goals in just seven games, and with that, the game was over shortly afterwards.
This was by no means a convincing performance by Shenhua but they got the job done with a minimum of fuss to claim a comfortable victory. The result plunged their opponents deep into the relegation mire, but sadly for Shenhua the victory almost certainly comes a little too late to make a late stab at 3rd place and an ACL berth.
The game was notable however for the contribution of the team’s domestic players, with the first two goals both being great efforts from promising youngsters who could both go very far in the game with the right training and opportunity. Their contribution made up for the absence from the starting XI of Shenhua’s best Chinese outfield players this season, Cao Yunding (who came on in the 71st minute), and flying winger Feng Renliang, who didn’t appear at all.
Domestic support was only lacking in the stands with a crowd well down on the previous highs of Drogba’s first few matches. Is Drogba fever over already, or is Zhu Zhun’s ceaseless boardroom pantomime show undermining a resurgence of interest in the team? Either way there couldn’t have been much more than 16-17k at the game, your correspondent missed any official announcement.
Shenhua have an away trip next Saturday – a trip to Jinshan beach for the derby against Shanghai Shenxin.
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