Fan favorites Wang Dalei and Dai Lin return to Honkgou for Saturday evening — will Shenhua’s patched-up attack give them any work to do?
Has Syrian forward Firas al-Khatib played his last game in Shenhua colors? The pocket-sized marksman was stretchered off with a torn calf muscle which will keep him out of action until the mid-season break. Luis Carlos Ruiz is racing against time to be fit for this one, returning from a leg muscle injury of his own.
Speculation in Shanghai is mounting that Firas, who has only one penalty to his name in 2014 and has complained about a lack of game time, may be replaced in the transfer window, with coach Sergio Batista recently going public with complaints about his squad’s quality and depth.
Last Time Out
Shenhua limped to a flat 3-0 defeat in Guizhou, with on-loan Shandong stopper Geng Xiaofeng having something of a howler for the second goal in particular. Shandong Luneng meanwhile lost their second game to an unfancied north-eastern side in a week, going down 2-1 at home to Dalian Aerbin and presumably ruling themselves out of the title (non-)race already.
Causes for Optimism…
Shenhua have to look to tradition and precedent for optimism here: Shandong Luneng have not won at Hongkou since 2010, and Batista’s side tend to reserve their best performances for big games or well-fancied opposition. This fixture last year saw the archetypal 2013 Shenhua performance — thoroughly outplayed in the first half, Shenhua hit back on the counter with two expertly-taken Firas goals to complete a true smash-and-grab victory.
… and for Concern
Of the key players from that 2013 victory, Firas will be watching from the stands and Wang Dalei from the Shandong goal. The return of Wang and Dai Lin to Hongkou coinciding with a week in which Batista has spoken openly about his squad issues serves to highlight just how mismanaged Shenhua have been under their recent ownership — Hongkou remains plastered with heavy-handed Greenland signage and fan protests, and the squad so thoroughly asset-stripped by Zhu Jun is beginning to struggle badly on the pitch.
Somewhat worryingly, Shenhua have not scored a goal from open play in their last 376 minutes of football.
Watch Out For
Once again, it’s going to be the Wang Dalei show at Hongkou. It’s impossible to begrudge the country’s best goalkeeper his move from a dysfunctional club which failed to pay his wages to a side with a better quality squad and regular ACL football, and presumably the fan reaction will reflect this. A Shenhua side struggling badly to score goals really could do with going up against a shakier goalkeeper than Wang this weekend — hopes must rest on the emotion of the “homecoming” proving too much for Wang or Dai, as it’s difficult to see Shenhua getting a sniff otherwise.
North Terrace Preview predicted relegation for Shenhua at the beginning of the season, and the side’s current form and football would seem to back that up. While a general lack of quality in the bottom half of the league and the Batista factor will probably be enough to see Shenhua sneak safety this season, don’t be surprised to see the home side’s struggles continue here.
While Shandong’s form has been shaky, Shenhua lack pace & guile in midfield and are under-powered up front — expect a 2-0 away win and yet another Wang Dalei clean sheet at Hongkou here.
Shenhua in 2014 according to North Terrace Preview:
P 10 W 3 D 1 L 6 GF 9 GA 14 GD -6 Pts 10
Shenhua in 2014 according to the CSL table:
P 10 W 2 D 4 L 4 GF 9 GA 13 GD -4 Pts 10
Ground: Hongkou Football Stadium, Hongkou District, Shanghai
Capacity: 35,000 (26,000 for football)
Honours: Chinese top-tier league champions: 1995
Chinese top-tier league runners-up: 1996, 1997, 1998, 2000, 2001, 2005, 2006, 2008
Chinese FA Cup winners: 1998
Chinese FA Cup runners up: 1995, 1997, 2015