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North Terrace Preview: Shandong Luneng v Shanghai Shenhua

Love may be in the air in Shandong, but Shanghai Shenhua are unlikely to find any affection heading their way with a tough fixture following Monday’s derby disaster against Hangzhou.

Last Time Out

In a way, the less said about Hangzhou’s late 1-0 win at Hongkou, the better. In what was undoubtedly Shenhua’s worst display of the season thus far, the boys in blue struggled to find any kind of coherence or penetration and cost themselves a result due to the club’s bizarre policy of retaining a back-up goalkeeper who can’t consistently catch, or even get close to, a football.

While Qiu Shenjiong’s flapping and a couple more dreadful refereeing decisions (at least shared evenly between the teams this time) might make the headlines, Shenhua’s midfield is looking more and more dependent on the absent Xu Liang every week the former Guoan man misses through long-term injury.

Shandong, meanwhile, became the latest victims of a resurgent Tianjin TEDA, going down to a 2-1 reverse up north.

Causes for Optimism…

You only need to look at the last meeting between these sides — Shenhua’s 2-1 smash-and-grab home victory — to realize that the ingredients behind that and Shenhua’s many other comebacks this season are fairly simple and may still be in supply — take one part goalkeeping brilliance, mix with equal measures of stout defending and lucky breaks, and finish off with a goal or two of sharp counter-attacking thrust.

Shenhua have additionally seemed to perform better as underdogs this season — the Hangzhou game being the latest example of a sluggish and flat side who don’t really know what to do when they’re expected to be on top of the opposition.

… and for Concern

There are plenty of concerns — largely centered around the middle of the park. Zheng Kaimu is looking once again like a rough diamond so unpolished you can barely see your reflection in it. Song Boxuan, so often Shenhua’s most consistently dangerous outlet this season, has been showing signs of his solo wonder goal against Shenxin going to his head, resulting in an unwelcome return to the flattering-to-deceive ball-hog of 2012. Patricio Toranzo, for all his occasional killer through-balls, looks far too lightweight and inconsistent to play as a central midfielder. The less said about Jiang Kun, the better… and Cao Yunding still can’t get ahead of Jiang in the pecking order.

Watch Out For

Will this game see the debut of the CSL’s latest genuine star signing? Shandong’s big-money capture of Vagner Love, fresh from winning another Russian title with CSKA, hasn’t resulted in the stocky Brazilian seeing any CSL game time so far — if and when he does make his debut, expect to see that, when it comes to guaranteed goals, signing Love is indeed all you need.

The Verdict

Raddy Antic’s side is a class act, and deservedly stand a ways clear of every side not called Guangzhou Evergrande in the standings. With a solid defence and good contribution of goals from across the park, they side from Jinan look well on their way to re-establishing their traditional place near the top of the domestic game following a couple of fallow years.

Love or no Love, Shenhua don’t have a snowball’s chance in hell here. A 3-0 home win and plenty of soul-searching from the Hongkou boys before what’s looking like an increasingly important home game against Shandong’s provincial neighbours next time out — a couple more weekends like the last one, and Shenhua will be right back in the thick of a relegation fight they seemed well clear of halfway through the season.

Reality Check

Shenhua according to North Terrace Preview:

P 19   W 7   D 7   L 5   GF 24   GA 24   GD 0   Pts 22

Shenhua according to the CSL table:

P 19  W 5   D 11   L 3   GF 21   GA 20   GD +1   Pts 20

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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