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North Terrace Preview: Shanghai Shenhua v Wuhan Zall

Saturday evening sees bottom-of-the-table Wuhan travel to a resurgent Hongkou side. Can Shenhua make it three in a row and leave the relegation picture looking a lot less dramatic than at the beginning of the month?

Last Time Out

They came, they (just about, given the ridiculous away area allocation up in the gods) saw, they conquered. For the second time this season Shenhua took more fans than the home side to an “away” derby in the city, and for the fourth time out of four they walked away from a Shanghai derby with a one-goal victory. East Asia may be the football hipster’s choice, and Shenxin may be, well, somehow still in the CSL, but Shenhua demonstrated that there’s plenty of life and fight in the old dog just yet, with antihero Gio Moreno yet again capping an absymal display with a fine winning goal, and perennial hero Wang Dalei performing his customary heroics at the other end.

In perhaps the shock result of Round 22, Wuhan Zall pulled off a 1-0 home win — only their third victory of the season — at home to Tianjin TEDA. If you’re finally going to start winning games after a season of struggle, then a six-pointer against relegation rivals in your new manager’s debut isn’t a bad place to start. Could this be the beginning of a Wuhan victory run that would make even Qingdao’s 2012 (and 2011) heroics look mundane?

Causes for Optimism…

As alluded to by Shen Xiangfu in his post-match interviews, Shenhua have brought a lot of their big-club tradition and pedigree to the fore in the last couple of weeks. From a position of looking over their shoulders and being in truly rotten form, back-to-back one-nothing victories in slightly kinder fixtures have given Shenhua a sufficient cushion to breathe again. Another win this weekend and Shenhua can effectively consign any lingering relegation doubts to the fields of the wildly improbable — having similarly slim odds to, say, North Terrace Preview ever actually seeing any financial return on the traditional pre-game Shenhua betting circle.

Oh, and you may have read this here before, but it bears repeating — while China’s national squad is relatively blessed for goalkeepers and a discussion of who should wear the #1 is outside this column’s remit — there cannot have been a CSL goalkeeper who has come close to Wang Dalei over the past two years in terms of week-in, week-out brilliance and number of points won for their team.

… and for Concern

Along with the usual suspects — positional musical chairs, chronic lack of fullbacks, paper-thin squad, Gio Moreno’s attitude, Dady and Firas being the new Gerrard and Lampard in terms of why-don’t-they-work-together — there’s the forgotten friend of complacency rearing her ugly head again here. Shenhua have been at their best as clear backs-to-the-wall underdogs this season, and have shown a habit of letting their foot off the gas when things looked a little easier — think Changchun away, Hangzhou at home, and of course the previous meeting between these sides in which Shenhua somehow went 3-0 down to the worst side in the league before clawing back a point.

Oh, and if anything goes wrong, Jiang Kun is still Shenhua’s first-choice substitute, it would appear.

Watch Out For

Like it or not, it’s been the Gio Moreno show of late. Whether deciding not to bother running, giving the ball away repeatedly, pinging Hollywood balls to opponents or scoring incredibly valuable winning goals, the Colombian has been at the heart of the Shenhua action. It’s almost inevitable that the big #10 will have a say here — whether that be through scoring yet again, or through espousing alackadaisical attitude if Shenhua get their pants pulled down by Wuhan again.

Please Gio, just don’t come close to that badge-kissing malarkey again, whatever happens.

The Verdict

While a Wuhan win here might be just what the CSL needs to retain any kind of narrative value in the coming weeks, it’s also the last thing Shenhua need. Expect yet another cagey one, with Shenhua’s top-drawer defence coming to the fore again. Looking at goal difference can be instrumental — while Guangzhou Evergrande’s +47 confirms that they’re basically two-and-a-bit goals better than every other team in China, Wuhan sit on a relatively modest -23. While they lose a lot, they rarely lose heavily (a 5-1 shellacking by Sven’s men in their last away game aside) and Shenhua will likely make heavy work of them here.

Still, North Terrace Preview is going for a 2-0 home win, almost inevitably including another Moreno goal, and ensuring that Hongkou thoughts can turn safely to a 2014 top-flight campaign.

Reality Check

Shenhua according to North Terrace Preview:

P 22   W 9   D 7   L 6   GF 28   GA 29   GD -1   Pts 28

Shenhua according to the CSL table:

P 22  W 7   D 11   L 4   GF 25   GA 23   GD +2   Pts 26

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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