Round nine of the 2013 season sees two CSL sides standing unbeaten — reigning champions Guangzhou Evergrande, and bargain-basement Shanghai Shenhua with their points deduction and unpaid players. Will David or Goliath emerge from Friday’s Hongkou encounter as the only unbeaten side in China this year?
Last Time Out
Shanghai Shenhua took their newly-found status as comeback kings to a quite ridiculous level last weekend — gifting bottom-of-the-table Wuhan Zall a 3-0 lead with twenty minutes to play, and somehow still coming back to force a 3-3 tie. Along with the usual suspects of Firas al-Khatib and Song Boxuan delivering standout performances, the game was turned somewhat by the introduction of the big Dady as an impact sub to score two of the goals.
Evergrande meanwhile cruised to a routine 3-0 home victory against Tianjin Teda — that man Elkeson once again on the scoresheet in a win so comfortable even the lesser-spotted Feng Renliang made an appearance to shake out some of the splinters he’s been picking up on the Evergrande bench.
Causes for Optimism…
You can’t back against this Shanghai Shenhua vintage — there is a balance of quality throughout the a side which was nevertheless decimated over the close-season, and the fighting spirit and togetherness displayed are qualities which have only sparingly been seen at Hongkou in recent seasons.
In al-Khatib and Dady, Shenhua seem to have the perfect big-man-little-man combination up front, too — while the Syrian made an instant impact, the big Cape Verdean looked awkward and shorn of confidence initially — recent unselfish performances and well-taken goals have seen confidence visibly seep into his game, typified by the classy outside-of-the-boot poke past the keeper for his and Shenhua’s second last week.
… and for Concern
North Terrace Preview would back 2013’s Shenhua to give any side in China a game — any side in China, that is, except for Evergrande. The big-spending Cantonese giants reinforced well over the summer, with Elkeson a player who could grace any league in world football — and may be doing so sooner rather than later if he keeps up his form and breaks the 30-goal mark this season. Alongside Conca and Muriqui, Elkeson provides a level of quality and cutting edge which no other side in China can match — for all their national teamers and experienced domestic players, it’s Evergrande’s South American contingent who make the difference.
You can talk about financial doping all you like — and North Terrace Preview certainly has its own proletarian leanings — but Evergrande simply spend money well and play football markedly better than any other side in the country. With Dalian Aerbin’s disappointing start, and Beijing Guoan falling into last season’s pattern of drawing games (and throwing away three points by fielding a reserve side), Evergrande are essentially already triple-champions-elect.
Watch Out For
The Shenhua defence are likely to be busy this Friday evening, and vital if the boys in blue are to have a chance of a point. Wang Dalei can be excused the one mental aberration against Wuhan if he keeps up the consistent heroics he’s shown over the last year and a half, and it will be interesting to see if Dai Lin is restored to the center of the defence.
Li Jianbin, after a promising debut, has been something of a one-man walking disaster show of late — involved in almost every goal or goalscoring opportunity Shenhua have conceded. If Evergrande had had the foresight to see his performances, they might have insisted on the opposite of the usual loanee clause — stipulating that he would have to play in Shenhua’s fixtures against his parent club, to guarantee opportunities. Although Li has youth on his side, he looks worryingly like a sideways step from the sale of Qiu Tianyi — swapping one limited center-back who is easily bullied our of the game for another.
Dai Lin and Rolando Schiavi should form the backbone of Shenhua’s defence, and Bai Jiajun is an automatic pick at left-back. Having managed to sell their first-choice and second-choice right-backs in one close-season without bringing in a replacement, Shenhua’s best bet might be to have Wang Shouting fill in once more at right-back, and bring the young terrier Zheng Kaimu back in to shield in the midfield.
Even the most optimistic fan, which North Terrace Preview isn’t always, couldn’t call this one as anything but an away win. Other than a freakish 2-2 draw at Tianhe last season which both sides might feel they should have won, Shenhua have been comprehensively outplayed by Evergrande every time the two have met. With Firas, Dady, Song and Toranzo on the field Shenhua will always carry a goal threat — this correspondant can’t see the boys in blue keeping enough of the ball or repelling Elkeson, Muriqui and co. for anything like long enough. A 3-1 win for Evergrande it is.
Shenhua according to North Terrace Preview:
P 8 W 4 D 3 L 1 GF 9 GA 6 GD +3 Pts 9
Shenhua according to the CSL table:
P 8 W 3 D 5 L 0 GF 11 GA 8 GD +3 Pts 8