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North Terrace Preview: Shanghai Shenxin v Shanghai Shenhua

With Shenxin’s move to Yuanshen Stadium, at 16:00 on Sunday the first true Shanghai derby for many a year kicks off a bumper season for intra-city rivalry. ‘s unashamedly partisan previewer-in-the-stands is still feeling some optimism from a Shenhua perspective.

Last Time Out

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the minus-six-pointer between Shenhua and Tianjin TEDA resulted in a stalemate at Hongkou. A very cagey affair resulted in defenders being the heroes of the day — particularly the former Boca Juniors and, erm, Greenock Morton stalwarts of the respective sides – Rolando Schiavi & Erik Paartalu.

If the defence proved stable, with the recalled Wang Shouting shielding a back four in which debutants Schiavi and Li Jianbin impressed despite Dai Lin being shifted to right-back, then the forward line gave Shenhua fans much less to shout about — only Wang Changqing and Cao Yunding offering any kind of spark while Dady, Gio Moreno, Xu Liang and friends wandered about at the less than inspiring Mach-Speed-Anelka.

Shenxin followed up on their relegation reprieve and potentially canny close-season shopping by frustrating reigning champions Guangzhou Evergrande for the first 45 minutes — before completely capitulating to ship five goals in the second half.

Causes for Optimism…

Almost all good, and even half-decent, sides are built on the basis of a solid defence. The 2013 vintage Shenhua appear reasonably well-blessed in this regard: Wang Dalei is a keeper as talented & consistent as any in the CSL, and the side appear to have a couple of solid options at center back. Other than a dicey period early in the second half, Tianjin didn’t appear to overly trouble the Shenhua back-line last weekend.

Additionally, it’s perhaps best to ignore the temptations to immediately write-off any of the new signings even after a very poor first display. Players can take time to bed in to a side — perhaps more fluency and confidence will begin to develop as players get used to one another and the coach.

Thirdly, and perhaps most importantly for this weekend,  let’s not ignore the fact that Shanghai Shenxin are absolute bobbins. Whether in the guise of a Nanchang, Jinshan, or Pudong side, their record is poor — this is a side with a highest-ever top flight position of 13th spot, and who would be playing China League One football this season if not for the dramatic demise of Dalian Shide.

… and for Concern

There are, of course, caveats to all of the above: as good as the defence may look right now, question marks remain over the ability of a 40-year-old to last a full season, and whether converting Dai Lin to a right-back is a tactical masterstroke or dangerous waste of a gifted stopper.

As patient as fans may be with Dady, the man from Cape Verde has managed to hit ten goals in a season a grand total of once in his thirteen-year professional career. While there’s a potential parallel with Luis Salmeron, beloved of North Terrace Preview, who also came in with a less-than-stellar record and huffed and puffed to no avail for a couple of games before shooting up the CSL scoring charts, there is potentially a critical difference here. Salmeron’s early issues seemed more related to conditioning than ability, whereas Dady already appears lean — to be blunt, it’s a lot easier to get an overweight forward into shape than it is to teach a donkey to play.

In the interests of giving Shenxin a fair hearing, it should be noted that Shenhua were unable to overcome them last season — the 0-0 at Hongkou was quite possibly the least eventful football match this correspondent has ever witnessed, with the 2-2 tie in Jinshan more than making up for the amount of drama, being the archetypal game of two halves.

Perhaps the biggest concern for Shenhua is that, while all is far from lost at this point in time, they need to start picking up points quickly — a relatively kind opening fixture list turns very nasty indeed from Round 9 onwards, when Shenhua face last season’s top 7 in back-to-back fixtures — a run of fixtures which will be repeated at the end of the season. If the Hongkou side are still a couple of points from safety when Evergrande roll in to town on May 10th, survival might quickly become a very faint prospect.

Watch Out For

Rumours abound that, in spite of not having returned to full fitness following his game-ending injury last week, Gio Moreno might be rushed back for this one.  Whether Moreno is fit or not, the key question for Shenhua here is one of midfield creativity — who is going to be providing the chances for  Dady to fluff? Xu Liang put in a Hongkou performance truly worth of a Beijing Guoan man last weekend — aimless, meandering, and with no hope of being on the winning team.

The answer, of course, would appear to be staring Sergio Batista in the face, as it has been since he began his tenure — although he didn’t score this time, Cao Yunding threatened to make more things happen in the final third than the rest of the team combined during his second-half cameo appearance against Tianjin. In a side which looks short on quality up front, it’s almost criminal that the one true game-changer in the Shenhua squad doesn’t make the starting XI.

An additional intrigue centers around when we will see the debut of Firas Al-Khatib, whether as a direct replacement for the Cape Verdean #9 or to play in a conventional big-man-little-man front two.

The Verdict

In North Terrace Preview‘s view, Shenhua should win this one. Shenhua almost certainly need to win this one. It is, however, difficult to say with any degree of confidence where the goals are going to come from — almost certainly not from any of the side who started the first game of the season.

With this in mind, it’s difficult to avoid predicting a soul-crushingly disappointing 0-0 for this one. This is one of the rare occasions where being proved wrong (or overly cautious) in a prediction would genuinely be a blessing.

Reality Check

Shenhua according to North Terrace Preview:

P 1   W 1   D 0   L 0   GF 2   GA 0   GD +2   Pts -3

Shenhua according to the CSL table:

P 1   W 0   D 1   L 0   GF 0   GA 0   GD +0   Pts -5

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 can now be found enjoying/enduring matchdays on Hongkou’s North Terrace along with the rest of the infamous Shenhua Element Crew.

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