Close-seasons always feel like an eternity — and are particularly torturous when all the news emanating from your club is negative. Undeterred, Hongkou’s very own Nostradamus* is back and looking forward to starting the season with a unique kind of six-pointer: the minus-six pointer.
Last Time Out
Two points and one place separated these two in the final 2012 CSL standings, although their respective seasons couldn’t have been more different. Tianjin ran through much of the season without ever threatening the top teams, but keeping their head mostly above water in what remained a very congested mid-table right to the end of the season.
Shenhua’s 2012 lurched from embarrassing to pathetic, with Didier Drogba and Wang Dalei at opposite ends of the pitch just about doing enough to keep the side afloat. The early-season woes included, of course, a quite literally rudderless defeat to Tianjin Teda with an ousted Jean Tigana taking a taxi home ahead of Tianjin’s first-ever win in Shanghai.
The close-season was not kind to either side, with these two the most heavily-punished clubs in the latest round of match-fixing repercussions. The changes to Shenhua’s playing squad have been almost as drastic — losing big names from home and abroad, along with the tragicomic end of Yu Tao’s long Shenhua career.
Causes for Optimism…
Well, at least Shenhua have a manager this time around. While a massively-reshuffled Shenhua squad will undoubtedly take time to gel, perhaps the greatest hope lies in the points deduction leading to a siege mentality at the club. It can’t be too often that two sides face one another in the opening round of fixtures knowing that they’ll both end the day in the relegation zone come what may — an early win will provide a great incentive to kick-start a what could be a season-long game of catch-up.
… and for Concern
Any side in the world would miss Didier Drogba — just ask either of the Chelsea managers stuck making do with a hapless Fernando Torres this season. Losing young internationals who had not yet reached their peak (both Wu Xi and Feng Renliang) and replacing them with an assortment of local and foreign journeymen the wrong side of thirty speaks well of neither Shenhua’s current stature in the CSL nor their medium-term prospects of recovery. The loss of Yu Tao is a further hammer blow to both stability and club identity on the pitch, too.
The starting lineup this Saturday is likely to contain only five (Wang Dalei, Dai Lin, Bai Jiajun, Zheng Kaimu & Gio Moreno) who could claim to be first-choice regulars in 2012. Changing more than half your starting eleven isn’t generally the way to immediate results.
Watch Out For
A number of close-season signings leave a lot of uncertainty about Shenhua’s starting eleven — Sergio Batista would seem to be chronically short on defensive and forward cover while having a wealth of midfield options at his disposal. Just how those ball-playing midfielders are integrated into one team (are Gio Moreno and Cao Yunding mutually compatible, particularly with the capture of Xu Liang?) which could be worryingly short on width or pace is a big question.
All Hongkou eyes will be looking to Batista’s team-sheet as an indication of the brand of football to be expected this season — early close-season rumours had it that Firas Al-Khatib would buzz around as a lone frontman, but the arrival of the big Dady (6’3″ if Wikipedia is to be believed) could result in a Shenhua front two being deployed for the first time since the halcyon days of Salmeron and Riascos.
For added comedy value, North Terrace Preview is going to keep a running table of Shenhua’s real-life performance against their predicted league position this year.
As there’s obviously no table to start off with, here’s a bold prediction for the starting eleven come Saturday night: attempting to second-guess the selection policy of a man who rides garbage trucks in his free time is clearly folly, so here we go! North Terrace Preview offers a half-time beer, redeemable in person, for anyone who gets closer to reality than this.
(4-2-3-1) Wang Dalei; Li Jianbin, Dai Lin, Rolando Schiavi, Bai Jiajun; Zheng Kaimu, Gio Moreno; Wang Changqing, Xu Liang, Patricio Toranzo; Firas Al-Khatib
For the prediction itself — expect this side (or one looking nothing like it), roared on by a motivated home support, to take this fixture 2-0 and lay down a marker in the upcoming relegation battle.
* when you consider that most of Nostradamus’ predictions were actually vague nonsense, the comparison makes a lot more sense.
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