This Saturday sees the third Shanghai derby of the season, as East Asia play host to Shenhua at Shanghai Stadium. In what should undoubtedly prove to be a much closer encounter than the last Shanghai derby – East Asia’s demolition of woeful city rivals Shenxin – can Xi Zhikang’s side exorcise the demons still lingering from last year, when they were defeated both home and away by their neighbors?
NORTH TERRACE PREVIEW (by Steve Crooks)
Shenhua come into this game on the back of their traditional capitulation at Tianhe; a 2-1 victory for Evergrande’s B side not really telling the true story of the gulf in class on display. Captain Gio Moreno was stretchered off injured in Guangzhou, but has resumed training and will be expected to start here — given his recent form and winning goal in this fixture last year, this must be seen as a boost for Shenhua.
In other club news, popular frontman Firas al-Khatib is reportedly considering his options regarding a mid-season transfer if he continues to get limited game time as second fiddle to Luis Carlos Ruiz. Whether this has an impact on coach Sergio Batista’s starting lineup will be an interesting feature of this game — while North Terrace Preview would echo fellow Shenhua fans in preferring Firas, the choice is far from a clear-cut one, with Ruiz showing some good play in the first couple of games of the second Batista era.
Shenhua will be looking to extend their dominance of the Shanghai derby scene here, although will have to do so in front of a fanbase shorn of their flags and drums on a police order. Are the Shanghai authorities tiring of Shenhua fans dominating all the city’s stadiums even from the away end? Expect to see significant numbers making the short trip from Hongkou in any case, looking to repeat last year’s victory both in the stands and on the field.
While East Asia are clearly a talented and well-organized side, there remains a suspicion that they can struggle to meet raised expectations — see last season’s pair of defeats to a worse-on-paper Shenhua, along with their recent wobbles following early-season table-topping form. Much, as always, will ride on the impact of Wu Lei — apparently Shenhua are making specific plans to deal with East Asia’s star man, although the game may depend on where he is deployed. Former team-mate Bai Jiajun, or screening midfielder Wang Shouting may have the tools to deal with Wu’s trickery and movement — the thought of him going up against a wardrobe-like Paulo Andre or undercooked Li Wenbo fills this correspondent with fear.
Expect East Asia to dominate possession, and Shenhua to keep things tight, narrow, and hit on the counter. If they can defend as a team and make use of the undoubted talent of Moreno, Ruiz, Gao Di or Firas on the break, then Shenhua have a chance here — particularly if the supporters can reprise last year’s “away” atmosphere and the side can draw on their mental advantage as derby kings. It could very easily go awry, but NTP is believing in a 1-0 Shenhua win this weekend.
Questions have lingered this week over Xi Zhikang’s reluctance to use a single substitute against Dalian Aerbin last weekend, particularly as a semi-fit Wu Lei struggled to find his best form, and East Asia continued to be denied in their pursuit of a winner. With the likes of Zhu Zhengrong waiting on the sidelines, a fresh pair of legs and some new ideas looked exactly like what the visitors needed, particularly with Aerbin making changes of their own. Nonetheless, to the disappointment of East Asia followers, Xi neglected to change things around in search of a winner.
Last Time Out
Last weekend saw Shanghai’s top ranked side travel to Dalian to take on an Aerbin team who had been struggling to play up to expectations in their opening six fixtures this year. However, the hosts put in a much-improved performance from their previous outing at Shenhua. Having taken an early lead via a controversial penalty decision, Dalian looked as though they might have gone further ahead, as East Asia struggled to find their rhythm in the first half. However, a 31st minute header from captain Wang Shenchao meant the two sides had to settle for a point apiece.
Shenhua, meanwhile, faced league leaders Guangzhou Evergrande at Tianhe Stadium. Despite a spirited performance against the reigning CSL and ACL champions, goals from Feng Junyan and Gao Lin sent Evergrande on their way to a 2-1 victory. Guangzhou did rest a number of key players in anticipation of their midweek Champions League clash against Yokohama F-Marinos, however, Sergio Batista should be commended for the improvements made by Shenhua during his short spell back at the club.
Causes for Optimism…
East Asia’s record stands at 3 wins from 3 games at Shanghai Stadium this year, a run that included an impressive 1-0 victory against Beijing Guoan. This resilience in front of their own fans, combined with Shenhua’s less than favorable away form, means the East Asia faithful will be quietly confident going into Saturday’s contest.
… and for Concern
Due to the injury he sustained against Changchun Yatai in the previous round, Wu Lei was uncharacteristically quiet at Dalian. Regardless, Xi Zhikang stuck with the below average Wu, deciding against making any changes throughout the course of the 90 minutes. This disregard for his backup options raises concerns as to whether the squad can withstand a push for a Champions League spot this season, when the head coach evidently lacks faith in the players outside of his starting 11.
Watch Out For
Lv Wenjun has something of a point to prove after his four-match suspension for showing his middle finger to his own bench against Shanghai Shenxin in the second round. Against Aerbin, the winger showed flashes of promise – after a quiet first half, Lv grew into the game following the restart. He will be looking to build on this effort this weekend back at Shanghai Stadium – where his magnificent overhead kick and energetic performance helped East Asia to a 5-1 win against Shenxin.
If East Asia can continue to perform as they have done at home so far this season, they can be optimistic of securing a first CSL victory over their hometown rivals. Providing Cai Huikang can limit the space in which Shenhua’s midfield lynchpin Gio Moreno can maneuver – shutting off the principle threat off the visitors – East Asia should be able to limit opportunities to test Yan Junling. Going forward, providing Wu Lei is back to 100%, his impressive (if recently toothless) exchanges with Tobias Hysen will surely be the home side’s most effective goal-scoring threat. I see this being a closely-fought encounter, but the with home advantage; as well as Wu and Hysen facing a suspect Shenhua back four, that has leaked 9 goals and looked persistently ill at ease so far this year, East Asia should pick up an important win. 2-1.