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North Terrace Preview: Wuhan Zall v Shanghai Shenhua

CSL 2013 round eight rolls around with the Hongkou side somehow still unbeaten and in the odd position of going into a game as clear favourites. Can Shenhua slam another nail into the coffin of a relegation-bound host?

Last Time Out

The Shanghai derby proper did not disappoint — your trusty correspondent predicted goals and drama, and fortress Hongkou was treated to plenty of both. A dubious penalty, even more dubious red card, and a couple of goals of sublime skill saw Shenhua come from behind yet again to put upstarts East Asia back in their place for the time being. 

While the side did look a little toothless until the introduction of talismanic Firas al Khatib, who sparked the side into life playing from a deeper role, it was encouraging to see a couple of midfielders get on the scoresheet, and to see Song Boxuan in particular excel with some penetrative wing-play. Perhaps all Shenhua’s eggs aren’t quite in one Syrian-shaped basket.

Wuhan Zall meanwhile continued to find life with the big boys much less rosy than they would have been expecting when clinching the second promotion spot last year — a 3-2 defeat which pulled bottom-placed Tianjin back out of negative points leaves the newcomers with an unenviable record of one point (against fellow strugglers Changchun) from seven games.

Causes for Optimism…

Seven games unbeaten, and yet another come-from-behind victory. Without the points deduction, Shenhua’s record would have them in fourth spot in the table — ahead of Beijing Guoan and challenging for ACL qualification.

There were signs against East Asia that the midfield is finally starting to click, recovering from some shockingly poor performances and statistics in that already-forgotten dirge by the seaside against Qingdao. There’s an undeniable feelgood factor about the side this season, and the players are clearly enjoying the fruits of their labours and siege mentality.

Additionally, North Terrace Preview harks back to the rallying call from the fake derby against Shenxin — the opposition this weekend are quite simply bobbins. With the relative immediate impact shown by both Guangzhou R&F and Dalian Aerbin last season, perhaps the Chinese football world has forgotten a little that promoted sides can often face a year of struggle. That certainly appears to be the case for Wuhan thus far in 2013 — while only losing one game by more than a one-goal margin, the side are consistently finding themselves just not quite good enough against seasoned CSL sides.

… and for Concern

What’s the best way to puncture a work ethic and team spirit which has been forged in adversity and being written off before a ball was kicked? That’s right — let complacency creep in and set the team up for a game they’re clearly expected to win.

Complacency could be Shenhua’s biggest foe here — despite going down by the odd goal in five in Tianjin, Wuhan will not quite have given up hope just yet and could close to within three points of Shenhua with a win here.  Recent Shenhua performances have been far from convincing over 90 minutes, and there’s only so many times that a side can recover from going behind — one of these days a side is going to be gifted a goal lead against Shenhua and hold on to it.

Watch Out For

Interesting decision for Batista on who starts up front here — while Dady was given the nod to lead the line against East Asia, this was surely more down to al Khatib not being entirely fit. Still, the big Cape Verdean is a hard worker and willing distraction, allowing the midfielders behind him space into which to dart. If al Khatib has recovered, then expect to see Dady step aside for the technical qualities of Patricio Toranzo to return to the side, with Firas leading the line.

To return to a familiar theme, it really is becoming make-or-break time for Cao Yunding. You’ll find little criticism of this cracking little player here at , but there must be a growing concern that Sergio Batista was perhaps correct to leave Cao out of the starting XI last season. While his match-turning cameos from the bench had the Hongkou faithful clamouring for a starting role for Cao, his form this season has been patchy at best — anonymous or downright poor would be closer to the truth. Is Cao one of those players who can only really perform when he has a point to prove, and whose form or even motivation is negatively affected by the security of a starting berth?

The Verdict

North Terrace Preview fears complacency here, and also fears another turgid away performance. Shenhua should just about have too much quality for a limited Zall side — don’t expect the fireworks of last weekend, but the scoreline might just be the same. 2-1 to Shenhua here. The fixtures stiffen noticeably after this weekend, so it’s imperative that Shenhua build something of a cushion before facing last season’s top 4 in back-to-back games.

Reality Check

Shenhua according to North Terrace Preview:

P 7   W 3   D 3   L 1   GF 7   GA 5   GD +2   Pts 6

Shenhua according to the CSL table:

P 7   W 3   D 4   L 0   GF 8   GA 5   GD +3   Pts 7

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 spent many an (un)happy year on Hongkou's North Terrace along with the Shenhua Element Crew and Blue Devils before relocating to Sydney from where he continues to follow the Chinese game from afar.

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