It’s a dictionary-definition six-pointer this Sunday evening as Liaoning travel to Hongkou, with both sides looking warily over their shoulders in the second half of the 2014 CSL season. Will a patched-up Shenhua be able to see off their out-of-form relegation rivals?
Shenhua fans have had some mixed off-pitch news to react to over the past week, with the club adopting a new badge following the unprecedented step of fan consultation from the previously heavy-handed Greenland PR machine. The jury remains very much out on whether the new owners’ disastrous community-alienation policy will continue to misfire as badly as the side’s strikers in the coming year; however this does have to be heralded as another small yet significant victory for the fan protest movement.
In more football-related news, Shenhua’s threadbare squad will be stretched to the limits this weekend — veterans Xu Liang and Jiang Kun are on the treatment table, and holding midfielder Wang Shouting joins talismanic captain Gio Moreno on the sidelines through suspension — the latter, somewhat stereotpyically, picking up his latest yellow card for an attempted hand-of-God moment last time out. The eagle-eyed reader will have noted that this leaves Shenhua’s four starting central midfielders out of contention for this crunch match.
Last Time Out
Shenhua kicked off the resumption of the CSL season early with their now-traditional pulsating home tie against Guangzhou Evergrande. The home side will count themselves somewhat unlucky to walk away without any points, with the game being bookended by an early Diamanti free-kick and a kick-in-the-teeth injury time winner from Rong Hao, ghosting in to score with the entire Shenhua defence caught flat-footed. The home side otherwise gave as good as they got against the not-quite-100% league leaders, with Gao Di’s cool finish a just reward following a defensive slip.
Both sides were also in CFA Cup action midweek — Shenhua winning 3-0 at China League One leaders Chongqing Lifan. Coach Sergio Batista sent out a full-strength side, and a clean-cut debutant Lucas Viatri used his head to score twice in a couple of minutes, and lay off a late third for that man Gao. Liaoning Whowin meanwhile had an unhappy trip to the Yangtze Delta region, becoming Liaoning Wholosetoamateurs, going down on penalties to the equally snappily-named Suzhou Jinfu New Materials (almost makes Shanghai Greenland Football Club Shenhua Football Team sound palatable…) in Kunshan.
Causes for Optimism…
Among Shenhua’s myriad issues, perhaps the most pressing in 2014 has been a lack of firepower. Two forwards were duly signed during the transfer window, and both have made strong debuts within a week of one another — Viatri’s match-winning display in Chongqing was preceded by a performance full of running and trickery from Paulo Henrique — one stunning back-heeled through ball put Cao Yunding in on goal only to miss, and another great run saw the ball played back across goal agonisingly close to a stretching Gio Moreno.
Sunday’s visitors are also one of the weakest sides in the league, and have scored an anemic nine times in fifteen games thus far — making even anti-football’s Shanghai Shenxin look prolific.
… and for Concern
Shenhua’s squad features precisely one remaining available central midfielder — the young destroyer Zheng Kaimu, a man who has been reduced to bench-warming and late substitute roles since his breakout 2012 season. The bits-and-pieces remaining for selection don’t make pretty reading: journeyman wide man Wang Changqing (whose selection would leave the right-back role vacant for the hapless Li Wenbo), Cao Yunding, and Zhang Yilin. Zhang often appears to be the very definition of mediocrity, and Cao has been playing confidence-free, selfish football for the best part of 3 years now following such high early hopes for the pint-sized playmaker.
While the absence of Moreno also frees up the side to start both South American forwards, the absence of Xu Liang opens the door for a return to center-back of Paulo Andre, a man dropped for too-frequently displaying the type of traditional Brazilian defensive play so ably showcased by David Luiz and friends during the recent World Cup semi-final and consolation game. If Liaoning are ever going to score heavily away from home, this could be the night.
Watch Out For
This correspondent can’t recall the last time Shenhua lined up in a 4-4-2; Batista’s preference is clearly for a front three or long striker supported by attacking midfielders, and previous coach Shen Xiangfu abhored any kind of football involving forwards or the ball being in the opposition half in general. Opportunity knocks for Viatri and Henrique to make an impact together, and hit off an understanding which — while short-lived — may be vital to Shenhua’s hopes of staying clear of the relegation places.
The elephant in the room is the continuing usage of Gao Di out wide, when he’s clearly better-suited to playing centrally and has a goal tally to reflect his natural finisher’s instinct. A penetrative performance by any combination of these three up front may sway the coach’s thinking for future games — having said that, don’t be at all surprised to see the compromise solution of Viatri as a target man with Henrique and Gao supporting from deeper or wider positions.
Tricky to call — Shenhua would be strong favorites were it not for the sheer number of central midfielders they’ll be without. The smart money would possibly be on a low-risk, low-scoring draw — but Shenhua have always defied logic, and seem to put in their best performances when their backs are against the wall and expectations at their lowest. Heart is ruling head with this prediction — 3-1 home win with at least one of the new strikers getting off the Hongkou mark to avoid their own Anelka-style record.
Shenhua in 2014 according to North Terrace Preview:
P 15 W 4 D 2 L 9 GF 12 GA 23 GD -11 Pts 14
Shenhua in 2014 according to the CSL table:
P 15 W 3 D 6 L 6 GF 15 GA 20 GD -5 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