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Firas! Al-khatib stuns Shandong in Shenhua smash and grab

Shanghai Shenhua 2-1 Shandong Luneng

Chinese Super League round 5

Al Khatib 60, 78; Niculae 18

Attendance: 12,430

Shanghai Shenhua came from behind to pull off a stunning win over a shell-shocked Shandong Luneng side which dominated much of a pulsating CSL league match at Hongkou stadium on Saturday night.

The home side endured a terrible first half which would have seen Shandong be several goals up by half-time were it not for a combination of poor finishing and heroics in the goal from Shenhua’s on-fire keeper Wang Dalei. But a spirited performance in the second half saw Shenhua snatch an unlikely victory in a classic smash-and-grab manoeuvre against a team which had won its first four games of the season and were top of the league.

Shenhua welcomed back its South American contingent who sat out the last two games due to a wage dispute. Veteran stopper Rolando Schiavi returned to the defence, and captain Gio Moreno was sitting in the hole behind striker Firas Al-Khatib. Cao Yunding and Zhan Yilin were in centre midfield, with Wang Shouting and Xu Liang again sitting in holding roles in front of the back four. In defence alongside Schiavi was Bai Jiajun at left back, and Li Jianbin and Dai Lin who appeared to swap positions from right back to centre back at several points in the match.

The match was barely seconds old when Shenhua had their first chance – Gio Moreno ran onto a Cao Yunding ball forward which the Shandong defence failed to clear properly, but the Columbians shot, after barely 10 seconds on the clock, went just wide.

The early nature of Shenhua’s first opportunity meant the home side would have to wait a very long time for their next opportunity. Indeed, early action was the order of the day as Shandong went up the park and Romanian striker Marius Niculae forced Wang Dalei into action with a low shot which went out for a corner after barely 50 seconds – a clear goal scoring chance for each side within the first minute.

The first half was dominated by Shandong as Wang Dalei pulled off a series of impressive saves to keep Shenhua level, but he couldn’t prevent Niculae from opening the scoring in the 18th minute. Former Shenhua defender Du Wei flicked a ball into the middle of the box, which ended up being headed over Wang, after the Romanian forward got the better of Li Jianbin in an aerial duel.

Shenhua tried to get back into the game, but all they could muster were a couple of weak low shots by Al-Khatib and Gio Moreno respectively, around the 20 minute mark.  At this point, it then looked as if the floodgates would open as Shandong took full control. In the 38th minute Wang pulled off the save of the match with an acrobatic leap to deny Shandong midfielder Wang Yongpo who shot from the edge of the box following a lay-off from Lv Zheng. It was a top-drawer save which denied Wang Yongpo a spectacular goal. And just four minutes later, Wang again came to the rescue to block a low shot from Brazilian forward Macena who managed to break into the right side of the box to unleash a drive.

Shandong went even closer with their next attack, when in the 42nd minute Macena hit the post from close range following a mini-scramble in the box which saw Schiavi and Dai Lin desperately try to get the ball out of danger. And just before half time, Wang again stopped Lv Cheng at the near post after the Shandong forward managed to just squeeze a shot past a furiously defending Dai Lin. Just moments later, there was time for yet another close shave as Song Boxuan headed off the line for Shenhua.

So the home side went in at half-time a goal down and with their tail between their legs. Talk on the terrace was of a negative nature and focused on how many Shenhua would concede. Losing the game looked a foregone conclusion and Sergio Batista had a real challenge on his hands to get anything out of the game, so comprehensively outplayed at his side been in the first 45.

Shenhua came out in the second half looking more composed and determined. But luck was on their side on the hour mark when Rolando Schiavi blocked an inbound shot, and as the ball rolled towards the goal-line, Li Jianbin foolishly made a slide tackle trying to prevent the ball from going out for a corner, only to succeed in knocking the ball right into the path of Shandong’s Macena who knocked the ball into the net with glee. However, the whistle had sounded before the ball went in – fortunately for Shenhua, Li’s effort to prevent a corner had failed. Even more fortunately, replays suggest the ball may not have crossed the goal line at all.

Shenhua seized on their lucky break, with a break all of their own. From the resultant corner, Moreno collected the ball and knocked it forward to Toranzo. In a sweeping counter-attacking move, the Argentinian played a perfect diagonal pass forward to Al-Khatib. The Syrian took the ball to the edge of the box and cut inside, taking out two defenders with his neat footwork, before unleashing a deadly shot which flew just inside Shandong keeper Geng Xiaofeng’s right hand post – Shenhua had somehow equalized and the home crowd celebrated the unexpected counter with gusto.

Shandong were understandably shaken by the equalizer, but not knocked out of their stride. The frequency of their attacks did fall though, as Shenhua clawed back more of the ball. Surely, few dared imagine that Shenhua could snatch the lead. But that was exactly what happened just 12 minutes from time, as Toranzo and Al-Khatib again combined to deadly effect. The former took a neat flick from Moreno in the midfield and played a tasty through ball right into the path of Al Khatib who timed his run perfectly. He was left one-on-one with keeper Geng, and made no mistake, slotting the ball under the custodian to put the home side ahead and Hongkou into a state of disbelieving delirium. Some inebriated fans on the north terrace celebrated in a bare-chested manner on the north terrace, making the most of the warm spring evening, as screams and even at one point, frenzied shrieking filled the air. One of the highlights of the season had just taken place.

Shandong were knocked by six, but despite mustering a few more attacks had used up all their attacking mojo and couldn’t find a way past the Shenhua backline. The final whistle blew to a loud roar from the home crowd, the players took the plaudits and the home support spilled out onto the streets and cut loose. Shenhua had moved up to 11th place, a quite remarkable achievement after five games considering the club started on minus six points and was without three of its key players for two of those games.

The visitors brought a large support, and all of an orange persuasion must have been wondering how on earth they managed to come away from Hongkou empty-handed. Shandong had an incredible 26 shots on goal and 8 on target, but only beat Wang Dalei once. Shenhua, by way of sharp contrast, mustered a mere four shots on goal and three on target, but netted twice. Shandong’s dominance didn’t end there, they had 66% of possession, and had 15 corners to Shenhua’s one. However convincing a picture the statistics show for Shandong’s efforts, they conceal the  fight and determination showed by Shenhua in the second half and Luneng have only themselves to blame for being knocked off the top of the early-season CSL table. They will however play worse than this and win games, of that there is no doubt.

Shenhua’s team ethic goes from strength to strength.After the match, Batista described the game as a “very strange” affair and said Shenhua’s first half performance was not acceptable, whilst praising the team for the amazing turnaround and “attitude improvement” in the second half. Team captain Moreno apologised to fans in a pitch-side post-match interview, and thanked Wang Dalei for keeping the team in the game early on and throughout the first half.

Im summary, Wang’s contribution was indeed massive, and of course the prowess of Al-Khatib simply cannot be ignored. Shenhua have scored five goals this season and the Syrian has scored three of them and provided assists for the other two. This was not lost on the crowd who chanted “Firas!” loudly and continuously in after game celebrations.

Move over Duvier Riascos, stand aside Didier Drogba, the new king of Hongkou has just been crowned.

A leading international commentator on Chinese football frequently quoted by the world's top media. Offers piercing and resolutely honest insights into the bustling crossroads where football, society, economics and politics meet in contemporary China. Based in Shanghai since 2005, observer of the Chinese game since 2000.



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