The toughest-looking fixture of Shenhua’s run-in should provide an acid test for both their unbeaten streak and the side’s potential for 2013.
Last Time Out
It’s unfortunate that we were unable to bring you a North Terrace Preview ahead of the Henan game, as ample copy-pasting would have saved some time in writing this one.
The first sixty minutes at home to Henan Jianye were almost a carbon copy of those witnessed in Jinshan for the Shanghai derby a week earlier: Shenhua making a lot of the early running, taking a deserved lead early on following a mouthwatering curled cross from a former Chelsea forward, and following this with a string of not-taken chances and half-chances while allowing a markedly inferior opponent to feel their way into the game through punting long balls into areas guarded by the diminiutive Yu Tao and Bai Jiajun.
A 1-0 lead at half time after creating so many openings always feels like a bad omen, and this turned out to be the case against both Shenxin and Jianye, with Shenhua somehow contriving to allow relegation-threatened sides back into the match with momentum swinging towards the underdogs.
Thankfully, at around the hour mark groundhog day was averted as Sergio Batista learned a lesson from the previous week and bowed to crowd pressure by bringing on Cao Yunding for the spent force of Jiang Kun. Lo and behond, the pint-sized playmaker was at the heart of many of the good things evidenced as the Hongkou side got back on top of the game, and Cao even popped up in the box to score his now-traditional substitute’s winner. Although far from a fluid and impressive game, Shenhua could and should have beaten Henan by more than the one goal, and showed at least a couple of green shoots of moving forward from the second beachside debacle of the season after the no-show at Qingdao.
Guizhou, meanwhile, continued their recent stutter with a one-nil defeat in a crucial game at Guangzhou R&F (no prizes for guessing which African import scored the winner). Since their big win over Evergrande in Round 19, the Guizhou side have in fact struggled to only one win in their next seven games, that one being over relegation-threatened Qingdao. From sparking a three-way title race to being outsiders in the race for third in a matter of a couple of months — a summer collapse one would more traditionally associate with their visitors for this coming round.
Causes for Optimism…
In making relatively heavy work of Henan, we didn’t learn too much more about Shenhua — Drogba will always have a big say in how CSL matches unfold, and the goals from Wu Xi and Cao Yunding demonstrate that there’s plenty of local talent coming through behind the big-money foreigners.
One specific area for optimism here is perhaps Guizhou’s woeful run — a fixture which looks very challenging from a cursory glance at the table actually becomes somewhat more encouraging when you consider how out of nick the former Xi’an side are — although it should be noted that they’ve sealed progress to the CSL cup final during this run.
A second, and perhaps surprising one coming from this correspondent, is the form of Nicolas Anelka.
Yes, he really did say it. Anelka. Having a reputation to protect however, North Terrace Preview would like to preface this point with the caveats that Anelka still looks nothing like a captain, nothing like a $300,000-a-week star, and that your correspondent is only 180 minutes away from winning a bet that Anelka (who was only recently toppled as the European Champions’ League record holder as goalscorer for the most clubs) will finish 2012 without a Hongkou goal to his name.
However, having said all of that, there are signs sparking of a player who can contribute usefully at this level — while the dragbacks and sublime touches are still sometimes a lead-in to nothing, there is definite creativity emanating from the man, and his involvement in Shenhua goals has increased markedly since the arrival of Drogba.
… and for Concern
Beware the wounded beast — perversely, Guizhou’s recent rotten run could work against Shenhua as Renhe seek to go out having re-established some form in front of their home fans.
There are a couple of other major worries for those of a blue persuasion here — the first being the shape of the team. Shenhua played some of their most dynamic football this season when Batista introduced a genuine 4-3-3 early on, making use of natural wingers in Feng Renliang and Song Boxuan. While Feng has struggled a little for form of late (although it’s difficult to improve one’s form when glued to the bench), Song seems to be one of those smaller-name players who, despite not really doing anything wrong and having chipped in with a couple of important goals, finds himself disappearing from the picture when the big-name signings arrive. The current version of 4-3-3 is an incredibly static one, not helped by having Anelka and Joel Griffiths as the nominal ‘wingers’. While both can deliver a good ball and cut inside, neither is blessed with natural pace or an instinct for the byline — the shape and pace of Shenhua’s attacking threat has hence had to slow down and become very centralized and overly dependent on Drogba.
The second concern is, as identified in recent match reports, Gio Moreno.
Yes folks, he not only went and semi-praised Anelka, but he also stuck the boot into a South American playmaker.
Moreno’s instant impact at Shenhua was arguably greater than even Drogba;’s, adding a level of assurance and class to an engine room which had been sorely lacking both. Shenhua fans were left thankful, if not a little confused, that a Colombian international in the prime of his career had chosen the CSL over making his name in Europe.
Well, recent games have perhaps showed why that is — the talent is indisputable, but the attitude and motivation need work. It’s not so much that Moreno has been giving the ball away through over-elaboration or an attempt to be too cute or creative — it’s that he’s been flat-out sloppy and lazy for a few weeks now. There’s clearly a top player there — but as he’ll be neither the first nor last import to find out, the CSL may be an easy payday but it’s not an easy matchday if you’re playing without application.
Watch Out For
The one to focus on here would be the midfield selection — surely the combination of Yu Tao in defence, Jiang Kun in the nominal #10 role and Cao Yunding on the bench can’t continue? Given that the big names appear undroppable (not a concept North Terrace Preview necessarily supports, but one which all too apparently exists), then it’s really that third midfielder (Zheng Kaimu’s performances as a destroyer make him arguably as undroppable as Moreno) who has to answer the questions posed by both Moreno’s slump and a very one-dimensional front line.
North Terrace Preview is not the only one at or on the Hongkou terraces who knows that Cao Yunding is the solution to this problem — the question is, does Sergio Batista?
Despite the attacking talent in both forward lines, don’t be surprised if this one ends up a low-scoring stalemate as both sides struggle in the middle of the park to get any real fluency going.
North Terrace Preview is going for a turgid 1-1 here — an outcome of little use other than the keep the unbeaten run going and perhaps further highlight some of the issues which need to be addressed for the 2013 season.
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