For the fifth time this season, local hero Cao Yunding came off the bench to score a result-changing goal as Shanghai Shenhua beat a stubborn Henan Construction 2-1 on Friday night.
The pint-sized creative midfielder came on in the second half to stab the ball home after a scrappy move in the Henan box to consolidate Shenhua’s slow progress up the table, and leave Henan deep in the relegation mire.
Head coach Sergio Batista named the same starting XI as that which not only started last weekend’s derby but also delivered such a shocking second-half performance. In a nutshell, that meant Cao Yunding on the bench again with the increasingly over-the-hill looking Jiang Kun taking his place in midfield instead. Musical chairs continued yet again as midfielder Yu Tao, a player of modest build and height, lined up in defence with defender Qiu Tianyi on the bench again.
Perhaps spurred on by the lambasting which the team received from Didier Drogba last week, Shenhua made a bright start with Anelka in particular looking hungry. He sprinted to get on the end of Giovanni Moreno’s ball to lay on a cross for Griffiths in the 11th minute which the Australian couldn’t quite get on target.
But just a minute later it was a different story as Shenhua scored a cracking goal. Drogba played a lobbed pass from just outside the D to the far post, to be met by right-back Wu Xi who volleyed the ball home first time in off the bar to open the scoring, and his personal account for the season. A tremendous goal on the part of both individuals involved.
For most of the first half, Henan were looking every bit the relegation-threatened time and were bereft of ideas for the most part, limited to taking shots from long-range. Midfielder Zhang Lu came closest to troubling Shenhua keeper Wang Dalei when he took a shot from just outside the area in the 23rd minute. Wang spilled the ball but managed to recover it without incident.
In the 27th minute, Anelka, looking more industrious and purposeful than in previous outings, released Drogba down the left wing, who in turn played a similar ball into the box which had resulted in Shenhua’s first goal. This time however it was Joel Griffiths on the end of it and he just couldn’t quite reach it in time to connect.
In the second half, Henan’s policy of shooting from distance paid off, when they were awarded a free kick some 45 yards out following a spat between Dai Lin and Henan’s Zambian international Chris Katango. Huang Xiyang took the resultant kick, it appeared to be a shot on goal, and a very bad one at that, which bounced out off someone and ended up about 25 yards from goal. Zhang Li was best positioned to take advantage and he drilled a low long range shot just inside Wang Dalei’s left hand post.
Shenhua could scarcely believe they had lost their lead, as unlike last week’s second half surrender, it was by no means deserved this time. Sergio Batista also switched up his tactics this time, taking off a rather tired-looking Jiang Kun who had a pretty bad game, and bringing on Cao Yunding to a rousing cheer.
Cao looked spritely and eager to impress. His mobility and crisp passing were immediately an obvious improvement over Jiang Kun, as fans on the terrace pondered over what exactly it was that Jiang Kun offered which Cao Yunding couldn’t.
Shenhua had a good shot from a freekick in the 66th minute, Moreno pulling a good save out of keeper Zeng Cheng. Shortly afterwards after some running from Cao Yunding, he released Drogba on the right of the penalty area. Drogba found Wu Xi who played the ball back in for Cao, but his side-footed shot was desperately blocked by a defender on the edge of the six-yard box.
Henan were under a huge amount of pressure by this point, and in the 70th minute Anelka found Cao Yunding with a fantastic lobbed pass over two defenders. Cao’s first touch let him down but he was fortunate to get the break of the ball and he stabbed it home from short range to save the day for Shenhua once again.
The native Shanghainese celebrated calmly, kissing the badge and jogging away towards Anelka and Drogba. His reaction was almost as if he expected to score, given his record of coming off the bench this season.
That was pretty much it as Shenhua controlled the match to win it 2-1. It was another workman like performance against a poor Henan team who look China League One bound. They had 12 shots on goal all game, but eight of those were from long-range and only three were on target. Shenhua dominated possession 60%-40% and had six of their 14 shots on target. In other words Shenhua should have won a bit more comfortably but all of a blue persuasion were satisfied with a reasonably solid victory.
The most notable matter of this game was of course Cao Yunding’s contribution from the bench. He must surely be wondering what he must do in order to secure a starting slot. He may not be happy to be dubbed a “super sub” but that is what he is – he’s scored from the bench five times this season, winning four games for Shenhua and drawing one.
takes no pleasure in saying this, but Cao’s replacement in midfield, Jiang Kun is surely past his best. Square-toed and with the speed of an oil tanker turning in the Yangtze, the 34-year-olds experience is not enough to justify his inclusion. Many on the north terrace may not have admitted it openly, but the feeling is definitely that Jiang’s time is up.
Shenhua travel to Guizhou on October 6 for their second last away match of the 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