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Historically weak Shenhua punch above weight – mid-season review

In the first of a series of mid-season previews of some of the CSL’s more interesting clubs, we take a look at perennial headline-hoggers Shanghai Shenhua. The Hongkou Stadium side have been pretty much out of the limelight since an ownership takeover close season – will this unusual state of affairs continue?

The story so far

Season 2014 is shaping up to be Shanghai Shenhua’s dullest CSL campaign yet. Last season saw the club heroically overcome off-pitch turmoil, a six-point deduction with a depleted squad for a respectable midtable finish. This year, further off-pitch turmoil in the shape of protests against new owners Greenland’s name-changing antics, and an even more depleted squad are balanced by Shenhua starting from zero points this season as opposed to -6. However, the pre-season departure of talismanic club hero Wang Dalei in goal, wing wizard Song Boxuan and hardman defender Dai Lin has left a squad more imbalanced than a drunken elephant.

The squad now has zero width, zero Chinese centrebacks, zero Chinese strikers and aparently zero useful reserves able to step in for injured or suspended first teamers. This has led to Sergio Batista having to play Shenhua’s favourite pastime – positional musical chairs – which has seen some interesting deputizations – Jiang Kun playing the lone striker role, and Xu Liang at centre half. It is no exageration to say that the current squad is one of, if not the, weakest roster in Shenhua’s history.
The decision to sell Dai Lin arguably had the most profound impact on Shenhua’s lineup. It meant that, with Li Jianbin returning from loan back to Guangzhou Evergrande, Shenhua had no Chinese central defenders, necessitating the signing of two foreign centre-backs, Korean Cho Byung-Kuk and Brazilian Paulo Andre. In a country with a sad lack of native attacking talent, is this the first time a CSL club has ever used two of its four foreigner slots both on central defenders? Your correspondent believes so. So with Gio Moreno a must-pick in midfield, that means Serigo Batista is forced to drop new striker Ruiz or Firas Al-khatib in every match.

This has made Shenhua very predictable tactically and Batista has struggled to deliver many decent results with such meager resources at his disposal. And with Paulo Andre, Li Wenbo, Firas, Jiang Kun, Xu Liang, Cho Byung-Kuk and Wang Changqing all on the wrong side of 30, Shenhua have one of the oldest squads in the league and its no surprise that fitness levels are a concern and several wins have been lost in the closing stages of matches to late equalizers.

Key match

The 1-0 victory over CSL powerhouse Shandong at home showed that Shenhua are still capable of getting results against much more talented sides at home. Shenhua again relied on a large slice of luck during the emotional match which saw the return of Wang Dalei for the opposition, but the victory gave the squad renewed self-belief, and helped bridge the gap which has developed between the team and the fans due to the name-changing issue which sees low-level protest at each game.

The boys in blue will need to rely on fortress Hongkou’s aura of invincibility to stay out of the relegation battle in the second half of the season – and the Hongkou factor will be seriously tested with big guns Beijing and Guangzhou Evergrande still to visit in the second half, as well as derby visits from Shenxin and East Asia.

Stars

As one may imagine from the tone of this preview so far, star performers in Shenhua jerseys are difficult to identify. The one standout man however would have to be Gio Moreno – the Columbian has been re-vitalized by the return of Sergio Batista. Gio has been much malgined on in the past as a player with huge but wasted talent. This season however, not only has Gio scored his now customary cache of match-winning goals, we’ve also beared witness to a footballing-miracle – the sight of Gio tracking back, tackling, and even sometimes winning the ball and distributing it usefully afterwards. There are two big statements which your correspondent can confidently make about Gio this season – he’s one of the most technically skilled players in the whole league, and Shenhua would get relegated this season without him.

Elsewhere, Wang Shouting, who appeared to have left the club close season, has made the defensive midfield position his own. A very effective water-carrier, Wang has grown in confidence in his well-defined role and whilst lacking a bit of bite in the tackle, can always be counted upon to break up attacks and do something useful with the ball.

Pre-season big-money signing from Shandong Gao Di is also worth a mention 4 goals is a decent return, especially for a striker being played out of position in every single game he plays in. Definitely a domestic signing success story and at 24 his best years are ahead of him – its been many years since Shenhua signed a Chinese player of Gao’s calibre.

And finally, whisper it, but Cao Yunding has shown some signs that his horrible season 2013 was not the start of his decline. The Shanghainese midfielder has at times looked back to his sharp, agile and incisive play-making self this season, a run of seven consecutive first team starts – quite a change from his super-sub days of the past two seasons.
Flops

Xu Liang. A hugely dissapointing season for the former Guoan man so far, he’s quite frankly looked past it. He has struggled with injuries since coming to Shenhua at the start of last season but he looks tired and weak compared to the slick and crisp passing machine which ran the Shenhua engine room last year. His set-pieces are always dangerous, but he is in grave danger of becoming a one-trick pony.

Further up the field, Ruiz, a striker with a one goal in six games scoring ratio who Shenhua saw fit to splash out 4 million USD on, has only managed one goal in seven starts for Shenhua. Whilst he looks like a better player than the stats suggest, he would seem to be the kind of striker who needs a lot of support from team-mates – something which is never going to come at Shenhua in its present condition. Rumoured to be leaving in the summer. His competitor for the lone strike position, Firas, is not enjoying as good a season as he did last year, but he’s still a more effective player with his direct running and ability to hold the ball up.

Paulo Andre has also failed to impress – one can only imagine why a player who joined from a club as big as Corinthians isn’t able to deal with the CSL. Communication problems perhaps? One doesn’t imagine its easy for Portuguese, Korean and Chinese speakers to always get their point accross in the fog of war. Elsewhere in defence, its easy to see why Guangzhou R&F let right-back Li Wenbo join Shenhua – he is the defensive version of Jiang Kun – inneffective and immobile. Wang Changqing is also largely a useless player but despite being a midfielder has forced Li Wenbo to onto the bench at times and stolen the right-back slot.

As for the rest of the squad, its mediocre at best with a few exceptions here and there. And don’t even think about the reserves – their last collective outing was against 3rd division Dali in the CFA cup last year, a match they disgustingly lost 2-3 at home and made everyone who witnessed that excruciating spectacle wonder how the hell any of that useless shower can make a living as professional footballers.

Must improve

They say there is always room for improvement, but due to the severly handicapped nature of Shenhua’s squad, there’s no clear area where things could be done better. Perhaps fitness levels? Or playing players in their proper positions? It would be nice to see Taiwanese captain Chen Poliang being given more pitch time. Surely he can’t be any worse than Jiang Kun? Oh, let’s not go there again. A clearer attacking tactical plan beyond “just give it to Gio” would also be nice.

Wildcard

Is Sergio Batista a good coach or not? With the paucity of resources at his disposal, it’s so hard to tell. It seems there’s little demand for his services back in his native Argentina however – hence his return to Shenhua earlier this season. All that can really be said about the Argentinian is he is passionate on the touchline, and his teams play better football than the utterly boring drivel served up by his predecessor Shen Xiangfu. Batista can’t be judged without better players under him. Speaking of which, Shenhua are rumoured to be looking to replace two foreign players in the summer transfer window – so who comes in and who goes out could be vital.

Outlook:

Shenhua have enough wits and experience about them to avoid relegation, but they certainly cant afford to be complacent. Their only chance of finishing in the top half of the table is if Greenland splashes the cash and brings in some big players in the summer window. But even if such purchases are made, there’s no guarantee of success. Expect the mediocrity to continue and Shenhua to ultimately finish a couple of places above the relegation zone. A cup run is the best that Shehua can hope for this year.

UK trained journalist and long-time Chinese football observer Cameron Wilson has been writing about Chinese football for over a decade...

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