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North Terrace Preview: Dalian Aerbin v Shanghai Shenhua

Due to a technical hitch, North Terrace Preview didn’t show up for kick-off last week. Neither did Shenhua’s players. Do better things await in Dalian?

Last Time Out

Shorn of their big-money foreign contingent due to their protest injuries, Shenhua were barely in the game against a very competent ACL-chasing Changchun side at Hongkou last weekend. In one of the most downbeat football evenings witnessed by this correspondent, Shenhua treated a listless quarter-full stadium lacking its usual ultra-fuelled vibrancy, and turned in a torpid performance in letting the game disappear within ten minutes.

At the other end of the table, and much closer to where all pre-season predictions would have had the Shanghai side, Dalian Aerbin edged a tight game down at Guangzhou R&F, leaving both promoted sides still in the hunt for that ACL spot.

Causes for Optimism…

Nothing but geographical precedent is on Shenhua’s side ahead of this round. Notoriously bad on the road, Shenhua actually find Dalian something of a happy hunting ground, having chalked up their only away win of the season at Aerbin’a city neighbours Shide through that rarest of things — a Feng Renliang header.

Shenhua’s away form has otherwise been so bad that you have to look back to the 2011 season for their last away win, which came in… Dalian.  North Terrace Preview would happily go on to point out the extent of the research which shows that Shenhua have won their last four CSL games in the city and not tasted defeat there since 2007, but this would be:

a) Relying a little too much on games against Aerbin’s city neighbour

b) An inevitable lead-in to a scripted gag about Dalian being everything to Shenhua which Shanghai isn’t to Beijing Guoan

So let’s not dwell on it, eh?

… and for Concern

Where to start? Putting aside temporarily the rather pressing concern of whether Drogba, Anelka or Moreno will be seen in the blue shirt of Shanghai Shenhua again, it’s worth remembering that only the former of the three can be considered an unqualified success thus far.

The side sent out to against Changchun last weekend does still contain a strong base for the present and future, but was tactically lop-sided and mentally fragile — ongoing concerns which the initially-dynamic Sergio Batista is appearing powerless to arrest.

The travails of Jiang Kun and Joel Griffiths were neatly documented in ‘s match report, so let’s dwell on the issues at the heart of the defence — an area in which Shenhua’s main bright spot of 2012 is quickly receding to the dark abyss of 2011.

In a column which never saw the light of day, North Terrace Preview was lobbying for the return of Moises ahead of Joel Griffiths — the reasoning being that the big Brazilian had overcome a sloppy start to form a rock-solid partnership with Dai Lin before losing his place due to the foreign player quota.

While this logic remains solid, Moises hardly covered himself with glory against Yatai — however, the alternative options are the bambi-on-ice stylings of Qiu Tianyi (the ugly duckling who just might never grow into a swan) or the remnants of the footballer known as Yu Tao —  a man who may finally have been destroyed by the confusion of being forced to play a different position every couple of weeks, and who perhaps hasn’t quite looked the same on-pitch leader since his woeful penalty which put Shenhua out of the CFA Cup.

Watch Out For

What does the future hold? Although relegation is still a possibility and may still be a possibility after this round of fixtures, it would take a freakish set of results across the country to leave Shenhua in China League One next year.

There are big questions facing Sergio Batista, not least whether he has any tactical ideas beyond a stodgy one-winger 4-3-3 formation, and just why he seems no longer to trust any players beyond a faltering first 14 picks or so — even when there must be considerable doubt over whether we will see Drogba, Anelka or Moreno again this season or indeed for 2013.

The Verdict

This should be one of the easier ones to call — promoted side on a good run and showing how to spend big money well comes up against a disjointed side wracked by political intrigue and with nothing to play for.

Oh, and Jiang Kun will probably play.

Aerbin to take it without breaking sweat — 3-1 if you fancy something specific.

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 spent many an (un)happy year on Hongkou's North Terrace along with the Shenhua Element Crew and Blue Devils before relocating to Sydney from where he continues to follow the Chinese game from afar.

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