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North Terrace Preview: Shanghai Shenhua v Beijing Guoan

All eyes turn to Hongkou on Sunday for the standout fixture in Round 11 — the China Derby. This fixture seems to always live up to its billing with plenty of drama and passion — can Shenhua’s 2013 vintage send yet another Guoan side back to the capital having failed to break the Hongkou hoodoo?

Last Time Out

There has been a lot of football played since your last North Terrace Preview, with a kind of eerie symmetry between the respective weeks of Shenhua and Guoan — a 2-2 league draw against local rivals followed by a disappointing cup exit midweek. The scale of said cup defeats points, of course, the the gulf in resources and expectations between the sides this season.

Shenhua kicked things off by living up to NTP’s call in forcing a dramatic 2-2 draw in Nanjing; lightning striking for the twice year in succession with yet more questionable penalty calls for the home side. While those of a blue persuasion may be licking their wounds following the shambles at home to third-tier Dali, this correspondent is not overly concerned — an admittedly wretched performance from a second-string side should only be a cause for concern if and when Shenhua’s first team begins suffering injuries and suspensions.

When a last-gasp Tianjin equalizer forced a 2-2 draw at Workers’ Stadium, any pretences Beijing were still clinging onto of challenging for the 2013 title must have evaporated. Guoan are still very much in the ACL hunt however — and while Shenhua were bottling it at home to a team from the nether regions of Chinese football, Guoan were exiting the ACL knockout stage with their heads held reasonably high after a battling 3-1 aggregate defeat to FC Seoul.

Causes for Optimism…

First and foremost, Shenhua’s first-choice matchday squad is head and shoulders above the footballing stylings of the reserve mob led out by the semi-retired Jiang Kun and comedy fatman Qiu Shenjiong against Dali midweek. The return of some actual defenders and forwards will be welcomed for this fixture.

While Firas al-Khatib’s goalscoring impact may have dried up a little in recent games, the big Cape Verdean number 9 is following Rolando Schiavi in making ‘s Shenhua writers eat humble pie for their pre-season cynicism. Having scored with a deft touch in a second consecutive away game, we’re beginning to see that there’s a lot more than route one to the man whose exuberant goal celebration marked the fact that he’s now once, twice, three times a Dady.

Additionally, Xu Liang has barely put at foot wrong at the heart of Shenhua’s midfield following his slow start to life in blue. The set piece masterclass against Sainty wasn’t even the best part of his game — while an incredibly valuable and often under-utilized skill, free kicks and corners are essentially predictable situations which can and should be drilled to perfection on the training ground. The vision and execution of the through ball to put Bai Jiajun in to set up Dady’s goal was something a lot less predictable — “footballing intelligence” like that is much harder to teach.

It would, of course, be remiss to preview this game without mentioning the fact that Guoan have never won at Hongkou. Even in the midst of Shenhua’s chaotic 2012, a title-aspiring Guoan side swaggered down to Shanghai to face a Shenhua side forced to play Jiang Kun as a Fabregas-esque false 9 — only to self-implode and head back north on the wrong end of a 3-1 defeat.

… and for Concern

Shenhua have begun to ship goals — even discounting the three against Dali (and “goals against” stats when Qiu Shenjiong is playing can be very misleading), the boys in blue have conceded eight in their past three CSL fixtures and not kept a clean sheet since early April’s stalemate at Hangzhou. The experiment of playing Dai Lin at right back to accommodate the erratic Li Jianbin has to end — with Dai Lin and Schiavi in front of Wang Dalei, Shenhua could potentially have the most solid defensive spine outside the top couple of clubs, if only Sergio Batista were to select Dai in his natural position.

Schiavi will have to be at his best to keep out the newfound creative guile of the 2013-model Freddy Kanoute, too. The former Sevilla man has been Guoan’s attacking fulcrum this season. While neither Schiavi nor Kanoute are quite as quick as they once were, the first five yards remains in the head, and viewers could be treated to a slightly slow-motion battle fit to grace any league in the world on Sunday.

Watch Out For

North Terrace Preview is going to take the slightly unusual approach of focusing on the opposition here. From the decent amount of Guoan games domestically and continentally which this not-quite-neutral observer has seen in recent years, it seems quite apparent that there’s a mental issue at the heart of the side. There’s no shortage of experienced heads or high-caliber youngsters, and the side can look technically as good as anything China has to offer — short of the Libertadores-standard frontline of Evergrande, of course. More often than not, however, Guoan seem to wilt when the heat is on — whether it’s coming up just short in games against Hengda or top ACL sides, being unable to keep the ball for more than two passes in the bearpit of Hongkou, or consistently finding a way to draw league games they should be winning, it seems at times that the capital side lack the belief and composure which perhaps their talent deserves.

The Verdict

Come what may, this should be a cracking game, and an important one too. Guoan may be slightly below par this season, and Shenhua battling through  a dark spell even by Zhu Jun’s neurotic style of club management, but this game always matters. In a nascent top-level football set-up such as China’s, history matters — and while this may be a history based largely on mutual loathing, it’s a history with two decades’ worth of drama, highs, and lows.

It’s impossible for a Shenhua follower to predict anything but a continuation of Guoan misery at Hongkou — 2-1 to Shenhua is the verdict here. For a bonus prediction before North Terrace Preview returns from holidays and normal service is resumed for the Aerbin game, expect the boys in blue to follow this up with a 2-0 surrender away to Guizhou.

Reality Check

Shenhua according to North Terrace Preview:

P 10   W 4   D 4   L 2   GF 12   GA 11   GD +1   Pts 10

Shenhua according to the CSL table:

P 10   W 3   D 6   L 1   GF 13   GA 13   GD 0   Pts 9

Steve hosts the Chinese Football Podcast, having joined the WEF team as correspondent for Shanghai Shenhua, the side he has followed since moving to Shanghai in 2010.

Exiled from the Victorian town-centre idyll of Feethams along with his childhood football team, Steve can now be found enjoying/enduring matchdays on Hongkou’s North Terrace along with the rest of the infamous Shenhua Element Crew.

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