Luckless Shandong Luneng left Hongkou Stadium empty-handed for the second year in succession after losing 1-0 to Shanghai Shenhua on a night of pure footballing theatre.
Off field matters again dominated a Shenhua home fixture, as Hongkou hero Wang Dalei returned to play his first game against his old club since his controversial big-money transfer during the close season to Shandong, along with defender Dai Lin.
CHINESE SUPER LEAGUE ROUND 11
Shanghai Shenhua 1
Shandong Luneng 0
The match as a whole was heavily influenced by Wang, one of the Chinese game’s most charismatic and passionate characters, who dominated matters before, during and after a match which resulted in an unexpected victory for the struggling home side.
In the run up to the fixture, local media focused heavily on the former Shenhua keeper who enjoyed a very close relationship with the Shanghai club’s fans during his 7 years with the team. The Dalian-born 25-year-old custodian was mobbed by Shenhua fans when he arrived to train at the ground on Friday, raising anticipation levels as to how he would perform as an opponent against Shenhua for the first time.
Before the game kicked off however, there were more player-related developments which Shenhua fans didn’t want to see. With forwards Luis Ruiz and Firas Al-khatib both out injured, Sergio Batista’s solution was to tell a pre-match press conference that he intended to start with aging, slow, cigarette-smoking midfielder Jiang Kun as lone striker. Your correspondent hoped that Batista was indulging us all again with another garbage truck-style joke, but unfortunately it turned out to be no laughing matter. In what appeared to be the most absurd team selection decision your correspondent has ever witnessed at Hongkou, striker Gao Di was yet again played out of position on the left wing instead of being given his first chance to shine in his natural position. Close season signing Chen Poliang, a midfielder, was left on the bench. None of Shenhua’s reserve team attackers were deemed worthy of even a place on the bench.
Further misfortune for Shenhua came in the shape of Geng Xiaofeng – on loan from Shandong – being unable to start in goals for Shenhua against his own club. A surprisingly trim and leaner Shenhua reserve Qiu Shenjiong started instead.
Shandong had three former Shenhua players in its lineup – in addition to Wang Dalei, defenders Dai Lin and Du Wei were both in orange in place of benched Australian centre-back Ryan McGowan. In-form Brazilian forward Wagner Love was left out through injury.
From the kick-off, Shandong’s approach was to press Shenhua at all times. This led to some nervy clearances at the start of the match, but thanks to the solid influence of Cho Byung-Kuk at the back, Shenhua adapted well. Shandong enjoyed the better of the opening stages, but didn’t register a shot on target until the 22nd minute when Brazilian forward Aloísio broke through to the edge of the box and tried a deft chip, however Qiu Shenjiong made a good reflex save to knock the ball safe.
Shandong had a number of chances, Aloísio again being in the thick of it with a far post header from close range which Qiu was equal to. Shenhua had some pressure but little in the way of clear cut chances in the first half – Gio Moreno’s run and then shot from the edge of the box forced a good save from Wang Dalei just before half time but the teams went in scoreless at half-time.
In the opening stages of the second half, Shenhua started brightly with Moreno wasting a shot when he probably should have passed to Cao Yunding who was in a better position. Soon after, Jiang Kun’s ball to the back post was acrobaticaly kept in by Xu Liang who knocked it to Gao Di to fire a shot at close range – but unfortunately for the former Shandong man, he could only knock it straight at Wang Dalei.
Shandong should have opened the scoring in the 49th minute when a defence-splitting ball found Walter Montillo on the right. He crossed to the unmarked Aloísio who, with the open goal at his mercy, commited a monstrous bungle by shinning the ball wide instead of knocking it home. Shenhua breathed a massive sigh of relief as Aloísio rued his apalling miss.
The breakthrough finally came in the 55th minute when Shandong defender Zhao Mingjian challenged Cao Yunding who was rushing towards the edge of the six yard box in persuit of a through ball. The players were both moving at speed and tangled, Cao appeared to go down as a result of losing his balance. It looked like a soft penalty, but it mattered not to the north terrace who were treated to the sight of Gio Moreno slotting the ball emphatically into Wang Dalei’s top right corner. Shenhua, playing with no real striker, had somehow taken the lead, Wang Dalei kicked the ball into his own net after the penalty in frustration before booting it up the pitch as Hongkou went mental.
The joy was short-lived however, as just a few mintes later Shandong had a penalty of their own when Júnior Urso was brought down in a clumbsy and odd-looking challenge by stand-in leftback Fan Lingjiang. It was a much more clear-cut penalty then Shenhua’s, and the stadium held its breath in frustration as the home side’s lead looked to evaporate no sooner than it had materialized. Up stepped Argentinian midfielder Walter Montillo to send Qiu Shenjiong the wrong way… but hit the post and watch the ball bounce safe. Hongkou again erupted with joy as Shandong were left cursing their luck once more.
Luneng tried to take the game to Shenhua but could only spurn more chances, including a ridiculous shot from way out by former Shenhua defender Dai Lin. Your correspondent, having watched Dai Lin needlessly waste possession for Shenhua hundreds of times over the last few season by shooting wildly from distance but never, ever getting a shot on target, found watching Dai Lin do it for another team against Shenhua as the most deeply satisfying moment of the game.
Shenhua managed to frustrate their more capable opponents, to the point where the home side looked the more likely to score in the closing stages, but after what seemed like a very long 5 minutes of added time, the wheel of fortune again spun kindly for the Hongkou side against Shandong, whoose manager Cuca must surely be under all kinds of pressure now with his expensively-assembled Luneng side already out of the ACL and realistically speaking, the CSL title race.
After the game there were emotional scenes as Wang Dalei did a lap of honour infront of an adoring Hongkou. Such a spectacle of players saluting their former team’s supporters is common in China, but the intestity of emotion during Wang’s lap was particularly moving. Girls cried, as did Wang himself, as he took a bow infront of the north terrance. As an adopted son of the city and a man with very deep affections for Shenhua , Wang’s gesture was yet another demonstration of what the name “Shenhua” means to the fans of the club and to the city itself.
Not to be forgotten was the performance of Qiu Shenjiong. Formerly ridiculed by many for being overweight, the reserve goalkeeper said in the media he had being waiting for this game knowing Geng Xiaofeng couldn’t play onloan against his old club. And in another sub-plot to an intriguing game, Qiu shook his fists in the air at the end of the match and looked to the sky infront of the north terrace who chanted his name. It was a moment of great personal triumph, which many will feel is deserved following an arduous fitness regieme to lose weight.
Shenhua travel to the north east next weekend for their first-ever game against Harbin, whilst Shandong retreat to Jinan to play Shanghai East Asia.
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