With five rounds gone, few would have expected both these sides to be unbeaten. Can Shanghai Shenhua take down a second table-topping Shandong side in two weeks?
Last Time Out
In what can only be described as a smash-and-grab, Shenhua welcomed table-topping Shandong Luneng to Hongkou stadium and proceeded to have the stuffing knocked out of them for the first 60 minutes, with only Wang Dalei and some wayward shooting to thank for keeping the score to 0-1 at half time. With the help of a linesman and that corner-that-never-was, the side in blue sprang to life for the last half hour, wrapping up a 2-1 win thanks to two beautifully worked goals from Firas al-Khatib.
Luneng’s defeat saw the early-season lead handed over to the province’s second team — Qingdao Jonoon winning up in Tianjin by the familiar one-goal margin, with the familiar sight of Bruno Meneghel scoring. North Terrace Preview‘s research calculations indicate that the little Brazilian has scored in 70% of Jonoon’s point-scoring games since his arrival midway through last season.
Causes for Optimism…
Is everything rosy in the garden of Shenhua? Played five, lost none — and a points haul which would have them as early-season ACL contenders were it not for the points deduction. An admirable team spirit, the ability to win games when not playing well, and a full contingent of international stars available for selection.
Things will get tougher — and we’ll learn a lot more about this side once the fixture list stiffens, once they have to bounce back from their first defeat, and once injuries or suspensions start to bite — but for the time being those of us of a Hongkou persuasion can look at things from a position more comfortable than many would have expected pre-season.
… and for Concern
Speaking of pre-season predictions, a number of correspondents (this one included) had Qingdao pinned down for another, ultimately futile, season fighting at the wrong end of the table. Their stunning start to the season sees them looking down on the rest of the CSL — while keeping things tight at the back and nicking just enough goals to win might not be the most exciting gameplan in world football, it’s certainly effective.
Shenhua also patently do not like to be beside the seaside — Dalian aside, their record in towns with beaches is frankly awful (we’re talking real beaches here, so excluding their unbeaten record at Jinshan). Despite turning Jonoon over 3-0 in a meaningless end-of-season swansong for a disappointing 2012 vintage, Shenhua’s mid-season defeat up in Qingdao was an absolute nadir — one of the worst performances North Terrace Preview has ever witnessed. To put that into perspective, remember that North Terrace Preview grew up watching fourth-tier football on a weekly basis.
Watch Out For
Previously a strength, Shenhua’s defence was more than creaky against Luneng — with the exception of the redoubtable Wang Dalei. Frequent tactical tinkerings can’t have helped — Shenhua began that game with their now-traditional back four of Dai Lin at right back, Schiavi and Li Jianbin in the middle, and Bai Jiajun at left-back. Early in the second half this somehow morphed into a back three of Dai, Schiavi and Li — sounds good on paper, but the whole point of moving to a midfield five is to better control the midfield, which Shenhua were routinely bypassing with long balls to the knee-high-to-a-grasshopper al-Khatib.
Reverting to a back four for the second half, Li Jianbin was surprisingly switched to left-back to cover for the injured Bai, whose absence will be keenly felt — Song Boxuan is a fair deputy, but his strengths lie further up the field. Dai Lin looked more comfortable alongside Schivi in the center, and Wang Shouting covered the right-back position with his typical tenacity and heart. Although he recovered to make a couple of key tackles late on, Li Jianbin generally had a very poor game — out-jumped for the Shandong goal and saved by a poor call from being the man who inexplicably gave away a second, the constant positional changes didn’t seem to help his skittishness.
How Batista reacts to the loss of Bai will be telling — while the side overall looks more comfortable playing a variant of 4-5-1, it’s clear that a relative wealth of center-backs and poverty of specialist full-backs (a reflection on yet another genius transfer window from the powers that be) could make trying 3-5-2 again a tempting option.
While both of these sides have impressed with their early-season results, neither has necessarily done so through a tidal wave of goals for or a swashbuckling style of play. Although football is a team game, it’s perhaps not too much of an oversimplification to suggest that if you shut down Firas you limit an awful lot of Shenhua’s threat; with the same being said for Qingdao and Bruno Meneghel.
A low-scoring draw would be of some mutual convenience here, and Shenhua’s away showings thus far would suggest that going for the clean sheet and point is the extent of their ambitions away from Hongkou this season. North Terrace Preview is calling this one a drab 0-0.
Shenhua according to North Terrace Preview:
P 5 W 2 D 2 L 1 GF 4 GA 3 GD +1 Pts 2
Shenhua according to the CSL table:
P 5 W 2 D 3 L 0 GF 5 GA 3 GD +2 Pts 3
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