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North Terrace News & Preview: Changchun Yatai v Shanghai Shenhua

It’s a second debut for Shenhua’s returning manager — will Sergio Batista be able to fire up a sleepwalking Shenhua for their Sunday afternoon trip to the north-east?

Club News

The return of Sergio Batista, replacing the man who replaced him as head coach, dominates the Shenhua news this week. A number of players have not wasted any time in hailing the return of their former Olympic-winning coach.

Last Time Out

The last game of the Shen Xiangfu era was all-too predictable — while keeping the ball reasonably comfortably, Shenhua offered very little indeed in the way of attacking impetus outside of set-pieces and a couple of moments of inspiration from captain Gio Moreno. A drab, and deeply frustrating, 0-0 home draw with newly-promoted Henan made clear that this will be a season of struggle for the misfiring Hongkou side.

Changchun meanwhile followed up their stunning 3-1 away win at Guangzhou Evergrande with a 2-1 defeat at Dalian Aerbin — a result which leaves the northern side on 4 points from 4 games alongside Shenhua.

Causes for Optimism…

The return of Batista will provide a welcome shot in the arm for Shenhua, and particularly last season’s standout frontman Firas al-Khatib, who had recently been somewhat marginalized by Shen Xiangfu. If he can reprise the siege mentality, willingness to counter at speed, and never-say-die attitude which led to Shenhua confounding 2013 expectations, then perhaps the first season of the Greenland era needn’t be a complete write-off. Batista’s Shenhua sides in the past have been characterized by a 4-3-3 formation and a little less reticence or conservatism than Shen’s preferred approach.

… and for Concern

4 games, 0 goals from open play. The statistics don’t lie — this Shenhua side has serious issues going forwards. While Batista may not be quite so conservative as Shen, the raw materials he has to work with are the same — a squad sorely lacking in pace, without a single natural winger, and with very little in the way of midfield creativity beyond a misfiring Xu Liang, a sporadic Moreno, and a frustrating Cao Yunding. Batista’s sides played their best football when making use of the pace and dribbling ability of Feng Renliang or Song Boxuan — Zhang Yilin is a very poor imitation of either of the wingers sold by Shenhua to ACL sides in recent transfer windows.

Perhaps the worst mistake of a poor winter transfer window for Shenhua was in not signing up Li Jianbin permanently, and thus having to rely on two foreign center-backs — the end result of which is that the coach is essentially forced to choose only one of al-Khatib or Carlos Ruiz up front. North Terrace Preview is not ready to write Ruiz off just yet — it’s entirely possible that the Colombian is a poacher who comes alive in the box with great finishing ability. The fact that his team-mates have not provided such an opportunity in the season thus far is a reflection on both how dreary Shenhua’s play has been, and also that perhaps Ruiz isn’t the type of striker needed by such a struggling side. The work-rate and footballing intelligence of Firas should make choosing between the two a no-brainer — the fact that the manager cannot play both together without sacrificing his captain or a starting center-back shows up the brainlessness of Shenhua’s squad building approach.

Watch Out For

Batista’s approach will be interesting here — 4-3-3 doesn’t look too workable with Shenhua’s current crop of players, with Zhang Yilin not worthy of a starting slot and both Cao Yunding and Gao Di looking much more comfortable and threatening in central positions rather than on the flanks. Whether Batista persists with Shen’s 4-4-1-1 approach (which did at least have the benefit of pushing Moreno up behind the striker and hence reduce his ability to over-elaborate and lose the ball in his own half) or toys with playing both Gao and Firas as a traditional front two — or, indeed, goes for a different approach entirely — will be of intrigue to Shenhua fans.

The Verdict

Two inconsistent, somewhat struggling sides come together here — it’s another early-season game which might effect the relegation battle come the end of the season. While this correspondent is more optimistic of Shenhua scraping 14th place now that Batista is back at the helm, the Hongkou side’s record up north is little short of appalling — expect a scrappy home win here, with NTP‘s money being on a 2-0 Changchun win — and a third goal-less showing in a row from Shenhua.

Reality Check

Shenhua in 2014 according to North Terrace Preview:

P 4   W 1   D 1   L 2   GF 5   GA 6   GD -1   Pts 4

Shenhua in 2014 according to the CSL table:

P 4   W 1   D 1   L 2   GF 3   GA 5   GD -2   Pts 4

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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