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Chinese Super League

Shenhua overcome pre-game absurdity to fight back against Liaoning

Shanghai Shenhua 2-2 Liaoning Whowin

Chinese Super League round 3

Al-Khatib 62, Dady 86;  Trifunović 17, Edu 38

The incredibly tedious Shanghai Shenhua boardroom dispute reached ludicrous new heights when only one foreign player started last night’s match against Liaoning Whowin. But despite the self-inflicted handicap, the home side battled back from 2-0 down to draw the match in one of the most rousing second-half performances seen for any a year at Hongkou Stadium.

Shocking news broke a couple of hours before the match that the club’s three South American stars, Gio Moreno of Columbia, and Argentinians Roland Schiavi and Patrico Torenzo, were absent from the team sheet, as yet again, unpaid wages were the source of discontent in the squad. For the first time in goodness knows how long, Shenhua lined up with only one foreigner, Syrian striker Firas Al-khatib in the line-up, as boss Sergio Batista was forced to turn the 3+1 foreign player rule on its head. Cape Verdian striker Dady was named on the bench but did not start for tactical reasons.

Local papers explained that Dady and Al-Khatib made themselves available for selection as they arrived just before the season began and the terms of their deals differed from their South American team-mates. However, in a post-match interview, Al-Khatib suggested he had not been paid either but was willing to play on. Reports also suggested that Chinese squad members also have at least part of their wages held in arrears, but as is the norm in China, they opt to play on regardless.

The unnecessary absence of Moreno, Toranzo and Schiavi – the club captain, the scorer of the winning goal in the Shanghai derby in the last round, and the defensive rock – meant changes aplenty to the line-up. Bit-part player Wang Fei came in at right back, Dai Lin moved to his natural central defensive position in place of Schiavi, whilst Wang Shouting and Xu Liang continued in front of the defence in a 4-2-3-1 line-up for Shenhua. Al-Khatib was upfront alone, with Cao Yunding, Song Boxuan, and, shock, horror, aging smoker Jiang Kun playing behind the Syrian.

Shenhua already faced an uphill battle going into this match in the shape of the -6 point deduction and the associated pressure of the punishment. But depriving itself of three of its supposedly best players was a highly irresponsible act on the part of Zhu Jun and the board which cheated the club’s loyal fans who are entitled to see the club put out the best team it can. However, with Chinese football fans being overly accustomed to bad treatment, the Blue Devil fan’s on Hongkou’s north terrace went into the game with expectations at an all-time low, and did not expect their heroes to hold their 9-year unbeaten against Liaoning.

The game was only three minutes old when Liaoning’s Brazilian striker Edu almost got the better of Wang Dalei in the Shenhua goal following a nice lay off at the edge of the box, but Dai Lin managed to get in the way of the shot and concede a corner.

The opening period was all Liaoning however and it didn’t take long before the visitors took the lead. Miloš Trifunović did the damage with a low drilled shot from the edge of the box after Wang Dalei deflected the ball out following a header from James Chamanga moments earlier. Shortly afterwards Edu, whose direct running was causing the Shenhua defence all sorts of problems, almost scored but only solid covering from Dai Lin limited his ability to shoot on target.

Shenhua were looking short of ideas, Cao Yunding should have done better than curl a shot way over the bar in the 25th minute from the edge of the box following a corner. In the 35th minute, Xu Liang lived up to his reputation as a dead ball specialist with a stunning freekick from nearly 30 yards out, but Liaoning keeper Zhang Lu pulled off a fantastic save to deny a goal that would have been against the run of play.

Just a minute later though and it looked all over for the home side. Edu broke forward following a headed pass and beat Li Jianbin in a battle of strength before shooting a low shot into the bottom corner of the net to put his side 2-0 up. And that is how the teams went in at half-time.

The mood on the terrace in the Shenhua end was grim. Shorn of three first-team foreign picks, there looked no way back against a team that had outperformed them in the first half.

But the Shenhua that emerged from the tunnel in the second half was a very different one. It played with a purpose and determination seldom seen at Hongkou. First to every ball, and battling for possession when without it, the home side’s share of the ball and shots on target rose accordingly. Zhan Yilin came close just seconds after the restart with a low shot from outside the box, as Shenhua really took full control of the match and started to launch regular attacks. The breakthrough came on the hour mark when Al-Khatib took a ball in the middle of the field over 25 yards out and unleashed a low accurate shot which just beat Liaoning’s Zhang and flew just inside the post.

Shenhua then moved up a gear, and roared on by an even more vociferous crowd than usual, took the game to their opponents. Liaoning offered some resistance, but the home side were dead set on an equalizer. Batista rang the changes – on came Dady for Xiong Fei and Song Boxuan for the ineffectual Jiang Kun.

As the clock hit 85 minutes, it looked like Liaoning might break their long winless streak against Shenhua. But history would have it differently. Song Boxuan took the ball down the left and squared to Cao Yunding, who laid it off the Bai Jiazhun. The left-back then played a through ball forward to an unmarked Al-Khatib, who squared it to Dady who couldn’t miss. Shenhua had battled back from the death and absolute bedlam broke out on the terraces, your correspondent belatedly joining the celebrations having yet again chosed an importune moment to relieve himself.

And so it finished 2-2. It was a second-half performance which completely embodied the “siege mentality” which many hoped Shenhua would adopt this season with relegation a distinct possibility. In the end Shenhua were perhaps unlucky not to win, with 61% possession, 19 shots on goal and 5 on target, compared to Liaoning’s 13 and 4. However the north-eastern side had their chances to seal the match also, Edu in particular looked very dangerous indeed and his goals will keep Liaoning out of trouble this year.

Firas Al-Khatib picked up his second man-of-the-match award in succession, and in a post-match interview (see below) with the club’s PPTV channel lamented the loss of his South American team-mates. When asked if he had been paid, he said, “I am new here and I know when the club has money they will pay for us, but now, we can’t leave the team at this time, we were on minus 2 points, if we were missing five professional players it’s very difficult for the team.”

Shenhua are now just one point below zero and surprisingly just one-point off moving out of the relegation zone thanks to results elsewhere. They face a tough challenge however to break into positive points in their next game – a Yangtze Delta Derby against Hangzhou Greentown next Sunday.

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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