Shanghai Shenhua 2-1 Wuhan Zall
Chinese Super League round 23
Moreno 41 (PK), al-Khatib 90+9 (PK); Dembele 16 (PK)
Attendance: 10, 513
Shanghai Shenhua made it three one-goal wins in a row with a 98th-minute spot-kick converted amid incredible scenes at Hongkou on Saturday evening, with Wuhan’s Zhu Ting twice being dragged from the pitch by teammates following attempts to assault the referee after an emotional meltdown following the award of a the late penalty which surely condemns his side to an immediate return to China League One.
Given the way results elsewhere went on Friday evening, with almost all the relegation-threatened sides picking up improbable victories, both sides came into this one knowing that a poor result could leave Wuhan stranded or drag their hosts back into the mire once again.
Wuhan looked much the better side in the early exchanges — where Shenhua were languid and lackadaisical, their visitors pressed, snapped and supported their man in possession to an extent that orange shirts seemed to outnumber their blue counterparts. Following a debut victory over Tianjin TEDA, new manager Ljubia Tumbakovic once again had his team fired-up, undoubtedly looking to avenge their late collapse to a 3-3 draw with Shenhua in the reverse fixture.
Wuhan’s Malian forward Garra Dembele in particular was almost unplayable, frequently evading the challenges of multiple Shenhua defenders with his tireless running and physicality, and it was little surprise and just reward when in the 16th minute he again cut into the Shenhua box only to be felled by Li Jianbin, promptly converting the penalty to put the better side ahead.
While Shenhua looked distinctly second-best for much of the first half, there were at least flashes of the possession-based, patient buildup which Shen Xiangfu seems to be implementing — Shenhua’s midfield simply could not live with the incessant pressing of swarms of Wuhan players, and possession was constantly being recycled. Atoning for his penalty giveaway, Li Jianbin seemed to move into an impressive man-marking detail on Dembele which partly snuffed the #29’s threat.
Wuhan’s timewasting, which would later come back to haunt them, began from the thirty-minute mark onwards, with the number of times Zall players rolled around on the floor “requiring treatment” passing double figures in the match. With both sides appearing to be settling for a 0-1 half-time scoreline in which the “nil” frankly flattered Shenhua, the home side received an unexpected helping hand with the award of one of the softest penalties seen even in Shenhua’s dramatic season — Gio Moreno receiving the gentlest of tickles in the back while jumping for a corner, and convincing the referee he had been pole-axed. The Colombian #10 stepped up to slam an unstoppable penalty into the top-left corner, taking his personal tally to three goals in three games, and giving Shenhua a completely undeserved half-time parity.
Wuhan once again came out energized for the start of the second half, but were unable to make a breakthrough. Perhaps sensing a tiring in the incessantly-running opposition, Shen introduced Cao Yunding to the fray on the 57th minute in place of the again-anonymous Zhang Yilin. Intelligent running and crossing from both Cao and Firas al-Khatib could do nothing more than force a series of corners however, as Wuhan’s stoutly-built rearguard (including bulked-up former Shenhua flop Qiu Tianyi) held firm. The boys in blue came closest to a breakthrough in the 58th minute when Dady connected with Firas al-Khatib’s cross at the near post following some neat work from Patricio Toranzo, only to be denied by a smart stop from Wu Yan in the Wuhan goal.
There was yet again to be a dramatic final twist in the tale, with Shenhua winning yet another corner-kick deep into injury time and dead-ball specialist Jiang Kun wheezing his way to the flag. Rolando Schiavi, on for a tired Moreno who for once had worked fairly hard during his time on the pitch, was involved in some jostling in the box which saw the referee to trot over an issue a warning. Warning apparently unheeded, Wuhan’s Senegalese defender Jacques Faty continued pushing the Argentinean and was duly punished with a booking and spot-kick.
At this point all chaos broke loose, in a way never witnessed by this correspondent’s many years of watching football. Quite what an emotional Zhu Ting began screaming at the referee is unclear, but it was sufficient to warrant a straight red card and lead to Zhu having to be carried from the pitch by the impressive Dembele — Zhu’s arms and legs still flailing Scrappy Doo style. There followed three minutes of general bedlam, with Wuhan’s kit man and friends also invading the pitch to have their say and kick up a few divots near the penalty spot, with al-Khatib all the while sitting calmly in the eye of the storm.
The game resumed with a barely-credible 98 minutes on the clock. Despite a game of tireless running and the drama around him, Firas never looked likely to miss in front of an expectant North Terrace, and duly slotted his penalty away to secure yet another Shenhua comeback.
There was, however, more drama yet to come — after a spot of Shenhua keep-ball, the man in yellow blew the whistle — only for the seemingly-placated Zhu to come tearing onto the pitch from the sidelines, haring straight for the ref. A couple of rugby tackles from his teammates later, the Wuhan #11 was once again dragged from the pitch — the officials by this point having riot-shielded police for company. Not only has Zhu easily outdone the previous frontrunner of Shenhua coach Shen Xiangfu for the hotly-contested “CSL man-child of the year” award, but surely he is now looking down the barrel of a hefty suspension.
Despite pretty play in patches, Shenhua can consider themselves lucky to have won here — after all the soft penalties conceded, perhaps that old football truism of luck evening itself out over the season came home to roost on Saturday. It’s difficult not to have some sympathy for Wuhan, who were by no means the worst side to turn up at Hongkou this season, showing a lot of neat football and near-boundless effort before, once again, coming up short in the final reckoning.