Tired of the high-drama, technical quality of the World Cup? Never fear, Shanghai Shenhua return to action in an unusually early end to the mid-season CSL break with league leaders Guangzhou Evergrande visiting Hongkou Stadium on Thursday evening.
It’s all change in the forward line, with tireless Syrian marksman Firas al-Khatib departing Shenhua alongside the more languid Colombian Luis Carlos Ruiz; Firas will be missed as something of a cult hero in Shanghai, with Ruiz (the club’s record signing) departing with his tail slung rather more between his legs.
With Ruis looking isolated and unable to link play, and Firas frustrated by a lack of gametime, it’s worth noting that the new boys can hardly do worse than their predecessors — both departing forwards leave having achieved the distinction of a half-Anelka, getting through to the mid-season break without scoring a single goal at Hongkou.
Last Time Out
In what feels like an awfully long time ago, Shenhua fell victim to a smash-and-grab comeback from Jiangsu Sainty; in a role reversal of the sides’ recent encounters at Hongkou, the home side looked much more comfortable and fluid than the visitors from Nanjing for much of the game, only to concede a sickening equalizer with one of their opponents’ few meaningful attacks. With the game finishing 1-1, Shenhua fans can only hope that the reverse-karma principle will continue for this year’s visit to Nanjing – as such Shenhua can look forward to being awarded not one but two ludicrously soft penalties in the game later on this year.
While visitors Guangzhou Evergrande wrapped up the first half of the season with a couple of 1-1 draws to remain on top of the CSL, they recently turned over Bundesliga’s great escape artists Hamburger SV 6-2 down in Guangzhou to tune up for a second half of the season in which retaining last season’s domestic & continental double must be the goal.
Causes for Optimism…
This is Evergrande, but not quite as we know them – with Conca replaced by Diamanti, Marcelo Lippi’s new policy of replacing South American stars with a retirement home for Serie A talent continued in the close-season break with Alberto Gilardino heading east; a man who seasoned European football followers may recall occasionally threatening being close to half-decent every now and then for Milan almost a decade ago.
While it’s unlikely to impact the result on Thursday – there is far, far too much of a gulf in squad class for that – it’s difficult for this sometime Evergrande observer (all fixtures against Shenhua and important CSL and ACL ties — there are undoubtedly those reading this article who know the side a lot better) to escape the feeling that a large part of what made this all-conquering side tick – the metronomic, maestro-like distribution of Conca and eternal wriggling and trickery of Muriqui prime among the South American flair on display – is being replaced by something more akin to football-by-the-numbers and the potential beginning of the CSL as a semi-serious retirement home in the vein of the early MLS or modern A-League.
… and for Concern
That gulf in quality. This is a one-paced, one-dimensional Shenhua squad shorn of width and creativity, and forced to rely on an increasingly-wayward dead-ball expertise and semi-regular flashes of brilliance from captain Gio Moreno – a man without whom the Hongkou side would be doomed this season. At least in past encounters with Evergrande – who really do have something of a hex on Shenhua, particularly at Hongkou – fans of the side in blue could console themselves with having the best goalkeeper on show and a promising winger or two. As things stand, Shenhua don’t have a single player (Moreno aside – who will be vying with Elkeson for the title of most talented player on the pitch) who would make the subs bench for Evergrande reserves, let along challenge the first-team.
Watch Out For
Which of the new forwards will get the nod? Presumably a 4-4-2 is unlikely, with Moreno and the two center-backs locked-down as regular picks, leaving only one foreign player slot open. As much as NTP would argue – along with many other Shenhua fans – to see Gao Di given a start in his natural position of center-forward alongside either Viatri or Henrique, a match against the best side in the land may not be the time – whoever starts up top will need to run plenty of lone furrows on Thursday.
Not a hope in hell – far better Shenhua sides than this have struggled awfully against Hengda. Difficult to avoid the customary 3-0 to Evergrande prediction here.
Shenhua in 2014 according to North Terrace Preview:
P 14 W 4 D 2 L 8 GF 12 GA 20 GD -8 Pts 14
Shenhua in 2014 according to the CSL table:
P 14 W 3 D 6 L 5 GF 14 GA 18 GD -4 Pts 15
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