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Previewing the sides: Shanghai Shenhua

As the 2013 CSL kick-off draws ever closer, it’s time for to cast our eye over the CSL’s soap opera club, whose fall from grace looks set to continue.

The manager: Waste-disposal aficionado Sergio Batista begins his first full CSL season with the jury still very much out on whether he can deliver the attack-minded football which won Argentina an Olympic medal in Beijing and led to an initial upswing in Shenhua’s 2012 form, or whether the one-paced late-season slump and tactical inflexibility are set to return.

The history: One of the older and more storied teams (particularly in terms of column inches at home and abroad) in the CSL, Shenhua have been fully-professional since 1993, with the chaotic Zhu Jun era commencing with the merger in 2007.

Shenhua have picked up two one league title a full eighteen years ago, and in recent years begun to flirt with mediocrity and even relegation, culminating in the dramatic close-season which saw the departure of big-money stars Anelka (even if temporarily) and Drogba, along with two national-teamers in Wu Xi (to Jiangsu Sainty) and Feng Renliang (to Guangzhou Evergrande’s bench). An ongoing ownership dispute, along with million-RMB fine and 6-point deduction as belated punishment for the 2003 match-fixing scandal, complete one of the bleakest winters of Shenhua’s (relatively) long history.

The team: Only mathematically safe from relegation on the final weekend of the 2012 CSL season, Shenhua mostly struggled to integrate a talented local core along with big-name and bigger-ego foreign superstars. There have been so many close-season changes that the 2013 side will bear relatively little resemblance to last year’s let-downs — although not necessarily for the better.

The stadium: Expect it to be half-full more often than not, but Hongkou is still one of the best places to watch football in the CSL — a real football stadium with the fans very close to the pitch. With season tickets at 500 RMB showing a reduction from last season, expect on-the-day tickets from either touts or the ticket office to return to the 50-80 RMB mark of pre-Anelka prices — and availability is not likely to be an issue.

The changes: Well, where to start? Losing two of the biggest-name strikers from world football over the past decade (although Anelka taking his ego and waddling to Juventus’ reserve team can only be counted as a blessing) along with two up-and-coming domestic national-teamers isn’t the best start. Defensive depth could also be an issue, with the underwhelming Qiu Tianyi taking his spindly frame to newly-promoted Wuhan Zall. Li Jianbin, loaned in from Evergrande, may find himself thrust into the starting line-up sooner rather than later.

In a rare bright spot, Shenhua managed to capture the full signing of last season’s loanee Bai Jiajun from neigbours Shanghai East Asia, along with demonstrating their well-known long-term planning by signing three 31-year-olds in Xu Liang & Wang Changqing (from Beijing Guo’an) and the token Dalian Shide pickup in Yan Song.

The foreigners: All-change here too. Out go European cup winners, and in come journeyman strikers from Syria (Firas Al-Khatib) and Cape Verde (Dady, whose name will at least make punning previews easier) — the former having confined his career thus far and impressive scoring rate to the middle-east, and the latter bringing with him years’ experience of not banging in many goals at the wrong end of Portuguese & Spanish football.

40-year old Rolando Schiavi at center-back and winger Patricio Toranzo join from Argentina and bring a couple of international caps with them, and Gio Moreno remains as the only returning foreigner from 2012 – much will be expected of the hot-and-cold playmaker this year.

The star: ‘s Shenhua player of the season last year was the outstanding Wang Dalei — the passionate shot-stopper finally delivering consistently on an early promise which once saw him linked with clubs across Europe. Wang’s reflexes and marshalling of his defence will be crucial if Shenhua are to avoid relapsing into their traditionally leaky defense in 2013.

The youngster: Other than Bai Jiajun, one other standout newcomer from 2012 was Zheng Kaimu — the young defensive midfielder seeming to grow in composure and ability with every game, and becoming an integral part of the team in 2012. If another good season follows, expect him to get close to the national side and promptly sold to the first ACL club who come in with an offer.

The x factor: It’s make-or-break time for Cao Yunding’s Shenhua career. Quite possibly the most talented player in the squad, Cao made a habit of turning matches as a second-half substitute last year. Question marks remain over how Batista can fit him into the same side as Moreno — a player of this talent and game-changing ability should be playing far more regularly.

The prediction: A huge number of changes, a real sense of deflated morale, and a six point penalty. Shenhua’s only aim this season can be to avoid relegation, and for this fan’s money they will just about succeed in doing so — 14th and safety (just) is the prediction.

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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