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Comeback kings Shenhua overturn three-goal lead to crush Wuhan’s spirit

Wuhan Zall 3-3 Shanghai Shenhua

Chinese Super League Round 8

Zhu Ting 45, 51, Li Hang 56; Dady 70, 78, Al-Khatib 83

The Shanghai Shenhua comeback machine was cranked up to full power on Saturday afternoon as it overturned Wuhan Zall’s three goal lead to finally draw the game 3-3.

In an unbelievable match at Wuhan Sport’s Centre, Shenhua struck to score three goals in 13 minutes after Wuhan had raced into a three goal lead earlier. The draw meant Shenhua came back from behind for the fifth time in just eight games so far this season, preserving their unbeaten status this year at the expense of Wuhan’s unfortunate record of having yet to win a match.

For the first time this season, Shenhua went into a match as favourites. Newly-promoted Wuhan Zaal had taken only one point from seven games before the match kicked off, had sacked their manager for their appalling start and were firmly rooted in the relegation zone. Shenhua on the other hand had confounded all expectations after a traumatic close season period to win several key games and remain unbeaten so far.

Shenhua’s line-up was largely unchanged, a fully-fit Firas Al-Khatib replaced Dady upfront being the only alteration. Interestingly midfielder Patrico Toranzo remained on the bench, Shenhua coach Batista choosing to pick Shanghainese midfielder Cao Yunding ahead of the Argentinian. With Firas Al-Khatib being the +1 Asian player in the 3+1 foreigner rule which applies to CSL games, Batista’s had the opportunity to field a fourth foreign player.

The match kicked off on a pleasantly warm and bright spring afternoon with Shenhua having brought a contingent of around 400 or so fans to add to the lively atmosphere.  The visitors got off to the better start and in the 10th minute the first real chance came. Cao Yunding broke down the right and made it to the by-line. He knocked the ball back into the six yard box to find the unmarked Firas Al-khatib. The normally deadly Syrian marksman’s gun jammed on this occasion however, instead of blasting the ball first time into the next he took a touch but failed to control the ball. By the time he did his shot was easily blocked, and a second bite at the cherry ended up the same way.

Wuhan had a few surges forward, but their play was disjointed and did not trouble the Shenhua defence much. However, in the 26th minute, the home side’s Ke Zhao left Dai Lin for dead on the left and sent in a tempting ball, Santos Junior was the man on the end of it and he should have done much better than to head the ball wide when it looked easier to get it on target.

Shenhua’s five amazing comebacks this season

Shenhua 2-2 Liaoning

Dady equalizes in 86th minute after Liaoning led 2-0

Shenhua 2-1 Shandong

Al-Khatib scores 78th minute winner after opponents scored first

Qingdao 1-1 Shenhua

Dady heads equalizer in 90th minute

Shenhua 2-1 East Asia

Gio Moreno heads 87th minute winner after derby opponents opened scoring

Wuhan 3-3 Shenhua

Shenhua complete amazing comeback with 3 goals in 13 second-half minutes

The warning signs for the visitors had emerged, and Wuhan gained confidence as Shenhua’s play started to fall apart, as passes went astray and team-mates started to look like complete strangers to one an other. The visitors looked to get through the tough period and regroup at half time with the scores still tied, but Wuhan, scenting their first victory, had other ideas. A forward ball was chased by Li Jianbin and Wuhan’s Malian forward Garra Dembélé. The on-loan Shenhua defender lost out to the African who proceeded to advance further before putting a low ball into the middle. Former Dalian Shide utility player Zhu Ting was lurking in the middle and he poked the ball towards the goal, which bounced down off the bar and over the line before landing outside the net. Following a few brief moments of confusion, the correct decision was confirmed and Wuhan took a one-nil lead into the dressing room at half time.

The teams emerged from the tunnel for the second half and Shenhua strode out confidently. The mood on the away fan’s terrace, a position from which your correspondent took in the match, was fairly relaxed, a one nil deficit against the weakest team in the league would present no major difficulty for Shenhua’s famed comeback capabilities. However, the deficit would soon double.

Before it did though, Shenhua had several chances to get back into the game. In the 49th minute Al-khatib inexplicably let the ball slip from under his feet after a getting on the end of a dangerous forward ball into the box from Xu Liang, when it looked as if he might score. Just moments later from the same play, Gio Moreno kept the ball from going out for a corner with a flick right on the goal line which found Cao Yunding, his turn and shot was too close to Wuhan keeper Wu Yan to find the net.

However Wuhan doubled their lead in the 51st minute when Wuhan’s Brazilian forward Santos broke down the right in a counter-attacking move. A pack of Shenhua defenders were sprinting back and keeping up with play. Santos had only one option, to cross for the on-rushing Zhou Ting who was flanked by Li Linbin and Rolando Schiavi of the visitors. A very accurate cross was delivered which Li Jianbin failed to block and Zhou prodded the ball home for his second goal of the game.

Shenhua’s chances of grabbing anything from the match seemed to be failing fast along with their unbeaten record. In the 58th minute the visitors almost got one back when a pin-point Song Boxuan cross from the left found Al-khatib in the box, but his header was easily blocked by Wu in the home side’s goal.

The next goal would not be scored by a Shenhua player however. It came in the 66th minute when somehow, Shenhua keeper Wang Dalei, acting as a temporary left back, dispossessed Wuhan attacker Dembélé on the edge of the box and cleared the ball down the flank. It however ended up at the feet of Wuhan’s young midfielder Li Hang, who spotted Wang off his line and for reasons known only to himself, jogging back to the line rather than sprinting. So, from over 50 yards out, Li floated the ball into the unguarded net for his first ever CSL goal. Not a bad way to make your introduction as a goalscorer, and the man himself would later say on Weibo, “Thanks friends for your kind words, I was delighted to score my first CSL goal. The result was a pity, that is just the charm of football.”

It was a spectacular goal to give Wuhan, a team which had only gained one point all season, a spectacular home lead. At this point, not one person in the stadium could have believed that Shenhua were not down and out. The visitors were now three goals to the bad and with less than 25 minutes of the fixture left, Shenhua’s unbeaten record was well and truly down the swanny.

Or was it?

Wuhan local paper laments their side's 13-minute nightmare

Wuhan local paper laments their side’s 13-minute nightmare

What happened next was the kind of pure footballing theatre which you only witness in person once every few years if you are lucky. The kind of completely unexpected and amazing turn of events which leaves you breathless, and later able to sit and watch your team suffer endless awful results in that hope that the phenomenon we saw on Saturday afternoon comes around again – the thrilling comeback against all odds.

Between the 2nd and 3rd Wuhan goals, Shenhua coach Batista had rang the changes, taking off Bai Jiajun, still carrying an injury, and switching to a 4-4-2 with striker Dady coming on. Gio Moreno, who had another very poor game, was pulled to make way for Patrico Torenzo. These switches would later become pivotal.

The changes had their effect in the 70th minute, when Song Boxuan, who had wreaked havoc on the left-wing all match, again managed to get a dangerous ball into the box. It was met by the head of Dady who sent a looping header into the net past the keeper. Nice goal, but surely no more than a consolation Shenhua fans all thought?

Wuhan had a chance to put the game beyond the seemingly slight doubt it was in at that point, when in the 75th minute Dembélé broke through following some nice link up play to get a clear shot on goal, but Wang Dalei made up for his earlier aberration with a fantastic save to deny the African.  Just three minutes later though, Dembélé would live to regret not scoring when Al-khatib managed to get the ball deep inside the Wuhan half, when his opponent lost this footing. This sudden change of play took the opposition by surprise and the Syrian put a great through ball into the path of Dady, who managed to gingerly poke the ball home under the keeper so that it rolled over the line. 3-2.

Last week we discussed whether opponents were being intimidated by Shenhua’s ability to come back from seemingly hopeless positions this season. Against East Asia in the previous round, we couldn’t really tell if that were the case. However in this match, with their second goal Shenhua struck a crushing blow to the fragile confidence that Wuhan, a team who had yet to win all year, had built up with their lead. Wuhan visibly went to pieces and Shenhua moved in for the kill.

Despite Shenhua’s comeback habit, when the killer blow came it was none the less shocking. Song Boxuan left his man for dead on the left, accelerating to the by-line. Yet another pin-point cross was delivered for his third assist in two games, this time the pint-sized striker Al-khatib did the damage, rising unchallenged to head the ball home from the middle of the box to complete an absolutely amazing comeback for Shenhua, who held on to keep their unbeaten record intact as the game finished 3-3.

The final whistle came as something of a relief for those in blue. Indeed it had been a day of frayed nerves for everyone in the stadium. For Wuhan, one couldn’t help but feel sorry for them. Losing a 3-0 lead in the manner they did must have been a soul-destroying result for a club already looking doomed for a quick return to the China League. The truth be told, this is clearly the weakest team in the CSL, aside from Zhou Ting and Dembélé the team looks lacking in quality, and they have a lot of work to do to arrest their decline.

Turning attention to Shenhua, once again the men from Hongkou managed to come back from behind, and this time, it was their most impressive recovery yet. After the match coach Sergio Batista once again voiced his frustration that a comeback had been necessary in the first place, and said the team only played well for 25 minutes of the 90.

And as well he might be upset – Shenhua’s performance in the first half was poor, and several Shenhua players had nightmare performances. Li Jianbin is quickly looking like he is not cut out to be a CSL central defender and was again made to look poor for two of Wuhan’s goals. The irony is that Dai Lin who is an excellent centre half, is being forced to play at right back to accommodate Li. However Dai Lin is as much a right-back as he is a circus acrobat and diabolical defending was the result of this. In midfield, Cao Yunding is much less effective playing wide than in the middle, and Gio Moreno continues to frustrate and not link-up well with the rest of the midfield. Had Shenhua been down 3-0 to any other team, such a come back simply would not have been possible.

Shenhua have many problems to iron out on the pitch if they are to have any chance of coming away with their unbeaten record still intact when they play the league’s only other unbeaten team next Friday night at Hongkou Stadium – none other than Guangzhou Evergrande.

 shenhua salute fans at wuhan

UK trained journalist and long-time Chinese football observer Cameron Wilson has been writing about Chinese football for over a decade…

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