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CSL 2014 Previews: Shanghai Shenhua

The manager: Something of a hatchet man, Shen Xiangfu can in one sense be credited with steadying the ship, albeit doing so by dropping anchor, barricading the doors and closing the curtains. He stepped into the breach following the rather unjust departure of Sergio Batista last season, and seemed to find some sort of rhythm after a painfully conservative start. Shenhua were rarely easy to beat as a result, but developed a nasty habit of conceding late goals after 85mins of desperate defending. Nevertheless, it would have been easy for a club in disarray to descend into freefall and a relegation battle – something which never came to pass, and something they’re largely expected to avoid this season as well. He’ll likely never be the adventurous type, but one hopes his hands are just about safe enough for more mid-table mediocrity.

The history: A work in progress, it seems. Greenland’s purchase of the club has pushed the Shenhua name to being a footnote, but it still stands tall on a recently celebrated 20 year history, all of which have been in the top flight since professionalization in 1994. The lone star above the club badge demarks a league title in 1995, and while those glory days feel increasingly distant, it has yet to be seen what trajectory the new owners set the club on. The finances are undoubtedly present should Greenland decide to take their investment seriously, and things can only get better following the departure of Zhu Jun – an owner who managed to make Mike Ashley look like the patron saint of sound and reasonable judgement.

The team: Last season was perhaps most notable as a collective effort; where many clubs in China lean on a handful of stars, Shenhua – having been stripped of such luxuries thanks to Zhu Jun’s somewhat relaxed approach to international contract law – were instead scrapping through on combined determination alone. This siege mentality seems to have served them well, and the team certainly don’t know when they’re beaten – routinely plundering points from the most unlikely of situations. Bai Jiajun had a quietly impressive season at full-back, and is one of the better local talents retained. Xu Liang was most impressive when fit, and Shenhua will be hoping he can spend a bit more time on a football pitch this time around – his left foot proved one of the few creative implements on display in many a match, and his set-piece delivery a godsend to any team always likely to be shaving close results.

The stadium: Bragging rights might be a bit more mixed around Shanghai these days, but Shenhua certainly boast the best stadium (or indeed the only one vaguely suited to playing football). Hongkou has been their home since the beginning of time, a dedicated football-only stadium (something of a rarity in China) since its redevelopment in 1999. 33,000 seats, and rarely even half-full – but while attendances dwindle, passions do not, and there’s noise to be had on the terraces to rival much larger fanbases. The lack of numbers in Shanghai is something of a mystery to this correspondent – even the mass hysteria of the Drogba days rarely pulled serious crowds – so one wonders what can ever be done to drive local interest. For some perhaps the match-rigging era is still too recent, Shenhua even starting last season with a six point penalty as a result of crimes past, albeit those dating back over a decade.

The changes: Change is the only constant at Shenhua, so one can argue there’s little surprise to be had from another winter of upheaval. The departure of Wang Dalei was the bitterest of parting shots from an asset-stripping owner – the league’s best goalkeeper (and adopted son of the city, having been there his entire career and married to a Shanghainese wife, no less) leaving for a record fee. Dai Lin was part of the same deal, the pair moving to Shandong, but his out-of-position performances in recent times have left him looking a player who won’t be greatly missed. Argentine Rolando Shiavi has departed, after an excellent stint marshaling an improving defence last season, as has compatriot Patricio Toranzo, who could claim expertise at marshaling his hairstyle but little else. Dady is also out, a man whose somewhat uncoordinated body language disguised either an excellent striker’s instinct or exceptional good fortune – he found himself in the right places more often than not, and his nine goals might be harder to replicate than many fans gave him credit for.

Winger Song Boxuan has also departed for arch rival Guoan, one of the brighter prospects who will be missed despite flattering to deceive on occasion. Shandong keeper Geng Shaofeng ended up moving in the opposite direction to Dalei – a capped Chinese international in his own right, he arrives to high expectations and with big gloves to fill. Gao Di is another highly thought of local talent, arriving after a loan spell at Hangzhou that sparkled in places. Perhaps most remarkably, however, is Shenhua’s decision to acquire an actual right back, having left the position unfilled since the departure of Wu Xi in 2012. Li Wenbo arrives from Guangzhou R&F with an enviable remit – he’ll almost certainly be a step up from the out-of-position makeshift arrangements of recent years. The timing of the club’s sale unfortunately means the departures outweigh the arrivals, and there’s no doubting the squad has more than a few holes to fill.

The foreigners: Paulo Andre has a job on his hands as the new Rolando Shiavi – an experienced Brazilian centre-back no doubt tasked with plugging the gaps and organising those around him to do likewise. He boasts a similarly impressive CV, playing regularly for a Paulista-winning Corinthians last season (although to his detriment he was once turned down by Alec McLeish, of all people, after a trail at Glasgow Rangers). South Korean Cho Byung-Kuk completes an unlikely pairing of two defensive foreigners (usually slots reserved for glamorous forwards), and boasts international credentials as well as extensive experience across the competitive K and J-Leagues. Gio Moreno, the mercurial Colombian, and Firas Al-Khatib, the rather more hard-working Syrian, have both signed on for another season.

The star: There’s no escaping the weight to be borne by the languid shoulders of Gio Moreno this season – an infuriatingly brilliant playmaker capable of just about anything. Sadly, ‘anything’ encompasses barely being present as well as slaloming through half a team en route to the bottom corner. His desire for a transfer to Dubai during last season says everything about his attitude, but on his day it’s like watching Juan Roman Riquelme waltz around a bunch of teenagers – an exceptional talent who really should be harnessing it better. When Gio doesn’t fancy it, which will be most of the time, it’ll be Firas Al-Khatib picking up the slack. Firas enjoyed an excellent start to last season, but tailed off as his fitness seemed to wane – ploughing lone furrows for games on end takes its toll eventually. With batteries recharged, he’s an accomplished talent most capable of picking holes in any defence.

The youngster: The sad knock-on effect of being a club that live from one panicked minute to next is that there’s little in the way of planning; of any kind of development structure for the future. Youngsters are rather lacking on the Shenhua radar – Cao Yunding, at 24, could just about be lumped into that category, but from winning many admirers as a game-changing impact substitute on his arrival in 2011, he regressed somewhat last season and failed to stake any kind of claim to being a regular starter. By the end of the season even his substitute appearances were being restricted in favour of Jiang Kun, a chain-smoking heavyweight of little discernible ability. This season must count as make-or-break for Yunding, and the firm fan favourite of yesteryear will find everyone on his side if he can start recreating early promise.

The X factor: While other clubs get to nervously chew over whether their new shiny new striker will make the grade in an unfamiliar league, Shenhua fans gets to fret over whether they actually have a shiny new striker. Deadline day came and went, with the backing of a powerhouse property empire and promises of a new dawn of dominance – but no actual signings announced. Luis Carlos Ruiz is the man who supposedly snuck under the radar, a journeyman Colombian striker with a middling career, but who managed to bag 18 goals in the Colombian top flight last year – so can’t be too bad. He joins with a reputation perhaps slightly in advance of the underwhelming-at-the-time Firas and Dady of last season, both of whom turned out very nicely indeed, and if he can manage anything like similar levels of performance he’ll be most welcome.

The prediction: Last season ended up a more casual stroll than expected, with Wang Dalei single-highhandedly earning some unwarranted points from wretched performances. But the siege mentality that gradually took hold elevated Shenhua to an unexpected level of resilience, resulting in many fans now (perhaps over-confidently?) expecting more of the same. One would hope there’s enough footballing nous about the place to stay out of any serious trouble, but ambitions don’t really extend much further at present. With two of the prized foreigner slots going to experienced centre-backs and a manager not prone to rushes of blood, one can expect a ‘safety-first’ approach at the club this season – perhaps an attempt at stability while the new owners decide what they want to do with the place. If the wages get paid on time, the new signings bed in and Gio turns up occasionally, Hongkou will find more than enough to shout about.

Andrew White is a British football fan currently based in Nairobi, who picked up a love of CSL from 4 years living in Shanghai.

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