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Love at first sight: Vagner’s twosome sink premature Shenhua

Shandong Luneng 3-2 Shanghai Shenhua

Love 56,70,  Yang Xu 89; Dady 2,34

Chinese Super League Round 20

Shanghai Shenhua blew a two goal lead away to Shandong Luneng to crash 3-2 to the CSL’s second-placed team as late goals saw the away side’s comeback kings reputation take another blow.

A first half brace from Cape Verdean striker Dadi was cancelled out by two goals from the CSLs latest big name, Vagner Love, and a last-minute winner from Yang Xu.

Before the match, most tipped Shenhua to lose heavily to a Shandong side seeking vengeance for Shenhua’s 2-1 smash-and-grab victory earlier this season. The visitors were forced to field a seriously under-strength side, with Gio Moreno and Song Boxuan injured and first choice left-back Bai Jiazhun suspended in addition to long-term absentee Xu Liang.

Despite the low expectations, Dadi put Shenhua ahead after just two minutes when he latched onto a sloppy Wang Yongpo back pass and raced past Shandong keeper Geng Xiaofeng to slot the ball into the net.

Stunned into action, Shandong pushed for an equalizer and came close with several chances, including a close-range header from new signing Love, forcing Wang Dalei into a great save. But in the 27th minute, Shenhua missed a glorious chance to double their lead when Toranzo’s in-swinging free kick fell to an unmarked Wang Shouting at the back post, but he hit the ball over the bar when it looked easier to score.

Love was causing the Shenhua defence all kinds of problems, but at the other end, Shenhua doubled their lead when Dady rose unmarked to head a Toranzo corner right into the net. The away side were two-nil up and looking reasonably good value for their lead, especially after Cao Yunding claim close with a run at the back post, shooting the ball just over in something of another wasted chance.

Just before half-time Shandong looked odds on to score when a tasty Antar through pass was received by Love. The big Brazilian however was dispossessed by the Shenhua defence, only for Shandong’s Lu Zheng to latch onto the loose ball. However he hit the right post with his first shot, and headed the rebound wide of the left post as Shenhua’s clean sheet somehow remained intact.

In the second half, the first action saw Firas Al-khatib latch onto a long ball forward from Dai Lin. The agile Syrian outpaced the Shandong defence to find himself one-on-one with Shandong custodian Geng. But the Shenhua forward hit his shot straight at the keeper, and then Dady somehow managed to not even connect with the rebound as another golden chance went begging for the away side. Shandong however were looking the more dominant side in the second and it was no surprise that Love opened his account in the 56th minute, knocking the ball home with ease after a dangerous low ball into the middle of the box.

And 15 minutes later Shenhua surrendered their lead when Zheng Kaimu was adjudged to have handled the ball in the box. The young midfielder claimed it struck only his upper arm, the replays didn’t show it clearly one way or another. Nevertheless, Love stepped up to score the fifth penalty Shenhua have conceded this season.

Shenhua’s capitulation was complete just before full-time when a long ball into the box found the head of Love. Wang Dalei managed to dive to parry the ball, but it fell to Yang Xu who made no mistake from close range. 3-2 it was, and Shandong had avoided the ignominy of failing to beat a clearly inferior Shenhua side for the second time in one season.

Shandong are a far better team on paper than Shenhua are but in the first half they were made to look fairly ordinary. However in the second they ratcheted up the pressure against a depleted Shenhua side which had missed three clear-cut chances to score more than two goals. But with Shenhua so under-strength, Shen Xiangfu’s options were limited, as the utter stupidity of Zhu Jun’s transfer policy came home to roost. For the first time this season, the defence lined up without a proper fullback on either the left or right. Dai Lin deputized for suspended Bai Jiazhun on the left and Wang Changqing on the right – in a return to Shenhua’s habit of playing positional musical chairs. That the Shenhua management continuously prefer to play first team players in unfamiliar positions rather than calling up reserve players who are naturals in those positions speaks volumes about their confidence in the second string players.

Shen Xiangfu’s choice of substitutions was also questioned by the Shanghai media. After Shandong’s first goal, he responded defensively by taking off the attack-minded Cao Yinding and replacing him with defensive midfielder Zheng Kaimu. Last season Zheng looked like one of the most promising players at Hongkou, but this year a lack of playing time has seen his progress halt. It was ironic he gave away the penalty which led to Shandong’s equalizer. Shen’s answer to this was to take off Firas for Wang Fei, one of Shenhua’s rarely seen reservists. Unless Firas was injured, leaving Dady upfront on his own was not a wise move defensively. Despite his two goals, Dady is an extremely limited player and little more than a poacher and an opportunist. He has a poor first touch, poor technique, is unable to hold up the ball, or regularly make accurate passes. His effort and work rate is commendable as is his passion and dedication to the team. This makes him a valuable asset in a season of struggle. But Al-khatib’s magnet-like feet would have held the ball up in advanced areas and cut down on the number  of attacks Shandong could have made. Unfortunately however Shen Xiangfu’s football is negative, dull and not a patch on that of former coach Sergio Batista’s.

The result was Shenhua’s second loss in a row and the third time in three games they had conceded game-changing late goals. Would this have happened under Batista? Your correspondent, and many other of a blue hue, suggest not. At any rate, results elsewhere mean Shenhua are just 3 points above the danger zone now and rapidly slipping into the shit.

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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