Shenhua look north — a long way north — this Saturday afternoon. A trip to 2014’s whipping boys should provide the Hongkou side with their best chance yet to break a years-long duck, but will their lack of firepower come to tell?
Despite his withdrawal in Guizhou supposedly signalling weeks on the sidelines for Firas al-Khatib, the indefatigable Syrian marksman is reportedly pushing for selection ahead of this game. The Shanghainese football media has been focusing on mid-season transfer gossip, and in particular the growing rumors that former fan favorite Duvier Riascos may be lined up to return in place of either Firas or his Colombian countryman Luis Carlos Ruiz. Given that Riascos is presently enjoying regular first-team football in Mexico, this would be something of a step down for the 2010 CSL Golden Boot winner, leaving this correspondent somewhat skeptical.
Pre-match speculation also surrounds the goalkeeper position for Shenhua — with former rolly-poly laughing-stock Qiu Shenjiong putting in a determined performance featuring a couple of acrobatic saves in the absence of loanee Geng Xiaofeng against his parent side, can the Big Bull cement a run in the side?
Last Time Out
Shenhua confounded predictions by continuing their proud home record against Shandong Luneng with a 1-0 win. Despite playing without a recognized center forward, Shenhua defended stoutly against a Shandong side lacking a cutting-edge due to the absence of Vagner Love. In a match marred by a contentious refereeing performance, the difference was made by the composure of each side’s penalty takers: the home captain Gio Moreno kept his cool and slotted home a winning goal he later dedicated to his pregnant wife.
Harbin Yiteng’s mini-revival (four points from two games following none from seven) was cut short with a 3-1 defeat at Dalian Aerbin — the newly-promoted side remain mired at the foot of the table.
Causes for Optimism…
Sure, it’s great to see additional geographic diversity in the CSL and to welcome new clubs to the top flight. It’s also arguable that Harbin may have been unfairly penalized due to a series of seven straight away games to begin the season — although “spring” weather up in Heilongjiang can be notorious. However — Yiteng simply aren’t a very good side. Without resorting to patronizing terms such as “plucky” or “deserving of more”, this is a side whose technical and mental levels see them having lost nine of their first eleven games — conceding more goals than any other CSL side in the process, and scoring fewer than anyone bar Shanghai Shenxin. For all Shenhua’s on-field and off-field issues, they ought to be a cut above Yiteng.
… and for Concern
Shenhua may well once again be without any recognized forwards here — and even Firas or Ruiz do play, Shenhua’s goal-scoring threat will be limited. It’s 466 minutes and counting since the Hongkou side scored from open play, and both foreign forwards have a paltry one goal to their names this season.
Ruiz is a player who North Terrace Preview potentially rates — “potentially” being the key, as the $4 million man is something of a luxury part which doesn’t fit this misfiring Shenhua machine. Ruiz appears to be one of those classic poachers who comes alive in the box and offers the square root of nowt outside of it — not ideal when the creative machinery around you consists of zero wingers, two wildly inconsistent young-ish central players forced out wide, a creaking Xu Liang and Colombia’s best Steven Gerrard impersonator.
Firas meanwhile has essentially “regressed” (a sentiment echoed by the local media this week) to a harder-working version of Nico Anelka — it doesn’t matter how technically good your center-forward is if he’s beating players forty or fifty yards from goal with a great gaping hole in the middle of the attack where he’s being paid to be.
Watch Out For
Does Qiu Shenjiong get the nod? Despite being one of his more vocal critics in the past, NTP is inclined to think he should. Possession — and decent performances in possession of the shirt — is nine tenths of the law in football, and other than a nervy early flap at a ball which nearly squirmed under him, the less-portly-than-before custodian was one of Shenhua’s better performances in their last game.
Geng Xiaofeng appears to be technically a perfectly solid goalkeeper, although prone to errors in judgement which have resulted in a couple of calamitous goals conceded in away games, and a generally uninspiring command of his area.
Shenhua need to decide on one of these as their likely #1 for next season — either giving Qiu an opportunity, or looking to make the Geng signing permanent. Due to the reality of needing a domestic goalkeeper and having sold the best stopper in the league this close-season, there is a distinctly limited number of options for Shenhua — short, perhaps, of throwing some of that (supposed) Greenland money at cross-town rivals. Sergio Batista’s choice of goalkeeper could prove illuminating here — and it’s a loaded gamble, with both men having thrown away points at times in their Shenhua careers thus far.
It won’t be pretty — and it will almost certainly be nervy going and harder work than it should be — but Shenhua really should have the quality to see of a distinctly China League standard Yiteng and rack up their first CSL win outside Shanghai in a couple of years — even though victories in Jinshan should technically count. 2-1 to Shenhua, with a comedy goal conceded and Gio Moreno driving to the fore once again.
Shenhua in 2014 according to North Terrace Preview:
P 11 W 3 D 1 L 7 GF 9 GA 16 GD -7 Pts 10
Shenhua in 2014 according to the CSL table:
P 10 W 3 D 4 L 4 GF 10 GA 13 GD -3 Pts 13
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