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North Terrace Preview – Shanghai Shenhua v Changchun Yatai

CSL action returns following the international break — while not the top game on this week’s agenda, this mid-table clash could still have important implications for both sides.

Last Time Out

Shenhua’s attempt to make it through the second half of the season undefeated came badly unstuck in a farcical performance in which they allowed an out-of-sorts Guizhou Renhe to hit themselves back into form in a 4-2 win. While Shenhua’s forward line, Joel Griffiths in particular, can consider themselves somewhat unlucky to have been consistently denied by a combination of woodwork and goalkeeper, some old defensive frailties returned with a vengeance in the absence of the injured Zheng Kaimu — lacking their midfield screen, the center backs were horribly exposed and dealt with balls over the top in a manner more suited to a circus tent than a football pitch.

Yatai, meanwhile, came through with a crucial three points in a 2-1 home win against Guangzhou R&F which leaves the Dongbei side just about in contention for the final ACL spots. Although only four points ahead of Shenhua, those four points make all the difference in terms of having something left to play for in the final three fixtures of 2012.

Causes For Optimism…

As alluded to in this week’s Pub Talk, Shenhua have displayed an encouraging ability to bounce back from poor performances under Sergio Batista — even if this does mean that they also lack the consistency to string two or three good performances together.

An optimist’s half-full glass would also reflect the sheer number of chances Shenhua created in Guizhou, and continued to create even when three goals down.

…and For Concern

Make no mistake, this was the return of 2011 era defending. Although they retain one of the better defensive records in the league even after that shellacking, the Renhe rogering served as a reminder that pre-season predictions had Shenhua’s previously dopey rearguard down as their major cause for concern.

Perhaps even more concerning was the utter structural shambles of the team — mutterings have begun on both the terraces and this website regarding the suitability of Batista to lead Shenhua into the 2013 campaign. Losing your side’s one natural holding midfielder shortly before kick off is unfortunate, but simply switching in another player and not making any tactical changes to compensate for this isn’t exactly a stroke of genius. The second half in particular was truly shambolic, with Cao Yunding being thrown on to replace the under-performing center half Qiu Tianyi and the team losing any semblance of shape or structure.

And perhaps it shouldn’t be forgotten that relying on a 20 year old holding midfielder in his first real CSL season to give your team solidity isn’t quite what Shenhua signed up for when assembling their multi million dollar forward line.

Watch Out For

Who starts at center back? All three players who tried the role in Guizhou came back with tails between their legs. Dai Lin had a very bad, emo-laden day at the office, not helped by a lack of support around him. Qiu Tianyi appears to be reverting to the Bambi-on-ice calamity of years past rather than the unspectacular stand in we’ve seen this year, and Yu Tao looked exactly what he is — a hardworking midfielder who is too small to play center half and has had his positional sense screwed up by being rotated between most of the available outfield positions under a series of managers.

There is, of course, an experienced center half in the squad who formed a solid partnership with Dai Lin and played a big role in Shenhua developing solidity this year, even popping up with a couple of useful goals. But, of course, Moises is being benched due to purely footballing reasons — nothing to do with having to accommodate big names and bigger salaries in a lop-sided attacking line up. And Zhu Jun and Anelka have nothing to do with team selection. And the tooth fairy is real.

The Verdict

In spite of the concerns above, it’s worth remembering that Shenhua are generally a different beast at home, and have had plenty of time to mull over what went wrong in Guizhou and over the season as a whole.

Changchun are no pushovers — a solid CSL side who Shenhua have failed to score against in 180 minutes so far in 2012, even if the Hongkou side did have the better of the 0-0 cup draw before crashing out on penalties. Both of these sides are also typically involved in low scoring games, with fewer goals both for and against than the teams around and even above them in the table.

Taking all this into account, North Terrace Preview’s famous crystal ball is pointing to a 2-1 home win, although not without its nervy moments.

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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