We continue the build up to the new season as Founding Editor Cameron Wilson takes in an in-depth look at the league’s most talked-about club, Shanghai Shenhua and analyses their prospects for 2013. Don’t miss our more bite-sized Shenhua preview which was published earlier this week.
Shenhua fans dreamed of glory last year. They dreamed of an all-conquering star line-up. Of Champions league-winning world-class strikers. Of moments of footballing wonder on Hongkou’s hallowed turf. Of never-ending camaraderie and brotherhood through shared victory. Of lustful celebration of crushing rival after rival. Of ending a near decade long quest for a third league title…
But dreamers run the risk of having a nightmare. And for Shanghai Shenhua, the past few months have been one long bad dream which there was no waking up from. It’s difficult to describe how awful the club’s close season period has been. Chaos has been the order of the day around Hongkou, as the club have lurched from one calamity to another, something which Shenhua could have done without following the major malfunction of last season. The first blow of the close season was Feng Renliang’s sale to Chinese national team player monopolists Guangzhou Evergrande. Most fans shrugged their shoulders – Zhu Jun had promised Drogba would be back they said, and Feng wasn’t living up to the promise he showed when he burst onto the scene in 2010. Whilst that was true, Feng was a real talent and a decent coach would have gotten the best out of the Chinese international winger. But if Feng’s sale was slightly understandable, the off-loading of international fullback Wu Xi was certainly not. A talented defender in a team lacking talent at the back, his sale to Jiangsu Sainty, a club with only four years of CSL experience behind them, was shocking. The sale could only be condoned if the club really needed the money, something which is far from clear. But what it meant was that Shenhua, specifically Zhu Jun, was continuing his well established policy of selling off the club’s best Chinese players, something he stated in 2009 with the sale of Gao Lin, Sun Xiang, Mao Jianqing and others.
In the fan’s minds, losing Feng and Wu Xi was tolerated as it was expected Drogba would return. However it didn’t work out like that of course. Zhu Jun’s petition to FIFA over Drogba’s unilateral move to Galatasaray could be politely described as disingenuous. But to speak more frankly, it was absolutely pathetic. It dragged Shenhua’s already tarnished name through the mud once more, when it was clear to anyone with a pair of eyes and functioning brain that there was no way a player of Drogba’s standing would leave a club without their permission unless his contract had become null and void. Nothing more will come from this appeal to FIFA, just in exactly the same way that Zhu Jun’s appeal to the CFA over the shocking departure of club legend Yu Tao during the winter has quietly been forgotten. These are the actions of an individual concerned with face and appearances much more than substance and long-term success at Shenhua, and the blame much of the close season malarkey, primarily the clubs dealings in the transfer market, lies at Zhu Jun’s door.
However, the biggest close-season blow of all was unconnected with Zhu Jun, or indeed anyone else currently at the club. Shenhua were stripped of their 2003 title for match-fixing, and will start the new season on -6 points and only one star on their shirt. The individuals concerned had been sentenced last year by China’s law courts following lengthy investigation, so punishments based on this from the CFA were expected, and the stripping of the 2003 title was not a surprise. The points deduction was questioned though – the crimes were committed a decade ago and the guilty had long since left Shenhua. Shandong and Changchun were also found guilty of graft, but not docked points. It could have been worse – Guangzhou and Chengdu were relegated just a few seasons ago for corruption, and indeed Zhang Jian, the new head of the CFA, pushed for such a measure. Nevertheless, the punishment was a another bitter pill for the club and its long-suffering fans to swallow and marked the end of a miserable close season.
So where does all this leave Shenhua as they prepare to embark on their 19th season? Frankly, up shit creek. The club was already named as a relegation struggler before the points deduction, but starting the season six points behind everyone else (except Tianjin) is a huge handicap. A solid start to the season is essential and Shenhua will have to reply on their normally strong home form if they are to survive. The opening fixtures give Shenhua a fighting chance to climb out of the -6 hole they find themselves in – Tianjin at home, Shanghai Shenxin away, Liaoning at home and then Hangzhou away. However, the fact the club only secured CSL football on the second last day of the season, with a world-class striker upfront, does not bode well for this season considering the squad has been weakened considerably.
The calibre of foreign imports this year looks somewhat mediocre. Syrian striker Firas Al-Khatib has scored quite a few goals in his career, but its unclear how the 29-year-old will shape up in the CSL. He’s joined upfront by the humorously-named Dady, a Portuguese-born Cape Verdean international whose record looks rather patchy. Patricio Toranzo , 30, has been described by Shanghai media as Shenhua’s “all-time most handsome foreign player”, whether his performances on the pitch will be attractive is another matter however. The former racing club midfielder does have two Argentinian caps however, and the local newspapers are also thrilled his model wife, Tamara Alves, is in town, and she has a twin strike force all of her own to beat any CSL outfit. Last, and least, is 40-year old former Boca Juniors captain Rolando Schiavi – he will bring experience, but surely there are better options out there than a player who has never played aboard before and is surely in the final year of his career. The CSL’s strikers will be rubbing their hands at the thought of coming up against a defender in his forties.
On the home front, Shenhua’s domestic signings have been mainly uninspiring. Two 31-year-old Beijing midfielders, Xu Liang and Wang Changqing, join as the club continues its policy of buying Guoan rejects. Xu Liang is a useful pickup, a free-kick specialist and someone who would get a game for most CSL clubs, but Wang Changqing has featured mainly in the reserves at Beijing in recent seasons, it’s difficult to understand his signing when midfield is the only area Shenhua already have covered well. Li Jianbin, a defender who made one solitary appearance for Guangzhou Evergrande last year, joins on loan for a year, with Shenhua having the option to buy. The 23-year-old is an unknown quantity for the most part, but he did enjoy success at Chengdu Blades before joining Evergrande. On the left-wing, Shenhua have signed 23-year-old Zhan Yilin, he’s never played in the CSL before but was a first team regular at his previous club, China League One winners Shanghai East Asia, and he will give his new team much-needed options on the left. Shenhua’s final signing of the close season was the only real piece of good news to come their way, that of left back Bai Jiazhun who returns to Hongkou as a Shenhua player having been on loan from East Asia last season. A pint-sized but tenacious and tough-tackling defender, the transfer sees Shenhua finally secure a replacement for left-back Sun Xiang who left three years ago for Guangzhou Evergrande. Bai’s signing means youngster Ni Yusong, who joined Shenhua from disbanded Dalian Shide during the close season, has already left the club without playing a game – each club can only sign five domestic players in each window.
Shenhua will survive
There are some positives this year for Shenhua, not an awful lot, but there are enough to believe the club will avoid relegation. Head coach Sergio Batista should use the points deduction and all the bad publicity to his advantage and create a siege mentality. Some semblance of harmony and balance in the squad will return now that Anelka has sulked off to Juventus, and Drogba has unceremoniously left. Everyone knew the rest of the team was not on the same level as the former Chelsea pair, no more so than the players themselves. They were being constantly reminded of their shortcomings just by being in the presence of Drogba, who at least on one occasion berated the squad for their failings. No matter if he was right or wrong, the point is that the players were in awe of Drogba and Anelka and will play much better as a unit without them. With the departure of not only the big stars, but also Yu Tao, Wu Xi and Feng Renliang, Shenhua have the chance to make a fresh start, and for Batista to make his mark having spent the last two-thirds of 2012 getting to know the squad. Giovanni Moreno is back and has been named captain. A curious decision for a player choose teamwork rating is very low, but the responsibility may spur him on, he will be the key player to watch this season and will wear the number 10 jersey. At the back, Wang Dalei will need to carry over his amazing form from last year if Shenhua are to survive in the CSL. Easily the club’s most improved player last season, thanks to Shenhua goalkeeping coach, former England international Ian Walker, he will be the other key man for Shenhua, especially as Shenhua’s defence, featuring a 40-year-old centre-half alongside the impressive but temperamental Dai Lin, has many question marks hanging over it. Also important this season will be Cao Yunding – the playmaker really needs to be in the team, as one of China’s most creative players it is a source of endless puzzlement for your correspondent why he did not feature more often under Batista last season. His presence is also important to the fans who want to see local lads in the team, something especially relevant now following the shock departure of Yu Tao. Still Baijia Jun and Zhan Yilin add two more Shanghainese faces to the roster this season.
Stop the rot
This must be the season Shenhua arrest their decline. Just a few years ago, Shenhua were regular finishers in the top 4 of the league, but the last two years have seen the club struggle badly. The failed Anelka and Drogba experiment, the points deduction and stripping of the 2003 title mean that the club really is at its lowest ebb and cannot afford to sink further. Talk in town is of the local government tiring of Zhu Jun’s theatrics and shifting its support to Shanghai East Asia, now that the club has made it into the CSL. This makes perfect sense from a political perspective, as East Asia are pretty much a model club in terms of its grass-roots structure and most of its youth talent is local – the club is more “Shanghainese” than Shenhua and there is a considerable demographic of football fans out there in Shanghai who do not like Shenhua and will never support them.
But Shenhua have almost two decades of culture and history behind them, and in the words of one Blue Devil supporter, “Shenhua are like a troublesome relative for most Shanghainese. You don’t go and see them every week, but when they are in trouble, of course you will go and help them out.” It’s unlikely Shenhua’s average gate will break into five figures this year, but at least there is some optimism. And optimism there must be – the relegation of Shenhua would be a great loss to the culture history of a league which just saw its most successful team ever, Dalian Shide, disappear after winning eight titles. For many, relegation is unthinkable as there is a risk it would lead to the death of the club. And this season, staying up will feel like winning the championship.