Buoyantly avoiding their traditional “summer slump”, Shanghai Shenhua now face a make-or-break week defending a proud record against old rivals Beijing Guoan and facing off against city rivals Shenxin in the cup quarter-finals.
The Week That Was: Grinding Out The Derbies
While not always pretty, Shenhua have certainly proved effective over the past week, continuing their solid post-summer-break form and keeping consecutive clean sheets — from different goalkeepers, no less — in the process. The second fixture saw a solid road point, and potential end of a recent rotten run against bogey team Hangzhou Greentown, with a 0-0 draw down in Zhejiang.
Local pretenders Shanghai Shenxin were dispatched at Hongkou over the previousweekend with a painfully dreary first half from both sides being followed by Shenhua comfortably seeing off their galline rivals with a crisply-taken first goal from Paulo Henrique followed up by an injury-time moment which summed up the story of Shanghai Shenhua, and the career of their current captain, in microcosm. 1-on-1 with the keeper after a smart reverse pass at the end of a counter-attack, all Gio Moreno had to do was complete the simple act of stroking the ball home — the gangly Colombian #10 however managed to fall over his own feet, ending up practically on his backside, only to show some smart thinking and ridiculous talent to drag the ball back and chip home with a ludicrous behind-the-leg effort. Making the mundane both sublime and ridiculous at once — welcome to Hongkou.
The Big Issue: A Simple Game?
Coach Sergio Batista has clearly decided that football is, at heart, a simple game. Rather than worrying about permutations and combinations, about shape and structure, or about how opposition systems might combat the balance (or complete lack thereof) in his side, the big Argentinean has decided that Shenhua’s best hopes of victory lie in fielding all three of their South American strikeforce at once. The argument for putting your most talented players on the field and surrounding them with willing runners (Gao Di and Cao Yunding), tireless defensive players (the under-appreciated Wang Shouting, and rationale for selecting Wang Changqing over the hapless Li Wenbo) and cool heads (Xu Liang and Cho Byung-kuk at center-back) is not only deceptively simple, but also a potentially reliable tactic in the CSL — a league known for neither tactical sophistication nor relentless pressing on the part of many rival sides.
Rather than the question being whether Batista dares to line up against Beijing Guoan with all three explosive forwards on the field, the question has become — fitness permitting — whether he dares not to unleash Henrique, Moreno and Lucas Viatri in concert. Given that Batista has previously seen his side play Guoan off the park at home without fielding a single striker (Jiang Kun’s unlikely star turn as a false 9 in 2012), the coach might even be looking forward to this one.
A secondary — but intriguing nonetheless — question centers on who will occupy Shenhua’s goal for these two crunch fixtures. Lose both of these games and Shenhua’s season is essentially over in any meaningful way — likely good enough not to be dragged back into the relegation mire, maintaining local pride and continuing the cup run are the main priorities for the Hongkou side right now. With Qiu Shenjiong suspended for the Hangzhou game, on-loan Geng Xiaofeng had a mostly solid display, including a couple of cracking reflex saves. Technically a superior goalkeeper to his more spirited local rival, has Geng done enough to win back his starting spot? North Terrace News would stick with Qiu — but given that Qiu has not quite cemented his starting role yet, and only came into possession of the keeper’s jersey following a competent performance standing in for an unavailable Geng against Shandong earlier this year, the man known affectionately as “big bull” may well be looking over those ample shoulders right about now.
Coming Up: Do or Die
It’s a simple equation for Shenhua — send Guoan back to the capital having extended their winless Hongkou record for one more year, and see off a hapless Shenxin for the second time in a couple of weeks, and the season can already be counted an unexpected success — once again. Lose one or both of these fixtures and that hard-won goodwill against the Greenland protests will dry up pretty quickly.
Guoan snapped out of a mini summer slump of their own with a 4-1 mauling of Dalian Aerbin up at Gongti — the Dejan effect in full force. With both sides coming into this China Derby in reasonable nick — although each with their weaknesses also — Saturday evening could be a cracker. One positive for Shenhua is that Peter Utaka will not be starting for Guoan, having left on loan — while far from popular with the fans in Beijing, the big forward has a solid goalscoring record and has always caused Shenhua all kinds of problems.
Utaka, of course, scored on debut for Shenxin — the
Nanchang Jiashan Pudong Jiashan side are otherwise painfully short on quality and coherence however, and look likely to be dragged into a serious relegation struggle this year. Shenxin shouldn’t provide Shenhua with too much trouble in the cup quarter-final at Hongkou on Wednesday evening.
Predictions & Reality Check
During the summer break, all signs pointed towards this being the year Guoan would finally win at Hongkou — Shenhua have their weakest, most unbalanced squad in history, and the two new signings were unknown quantities to the league and fans. Fast-forward a couple of weeks and Shenhua’s recent form, along with Guo’an not getting out of first gear until last weekend, and the home side’s confidence must have returned — 2-1 Shenhua, and yet another year of pain for the Beijingers.
The cup game might not — quite possibly physically cannot — live up to either the pressure-cooker of the China Derby or the poor quality of the recent Shenhua-Shenxin meeting. It’s difficult to see anything other than a home win and semi-final berth for Batista’s men — Shenxin’s already fragile confidence to crumble in the face of a 3-0 home win.
Shenhua in 2014 according to North Terrace News:
P 18 W 6 D 2 L 10 GF 17 GA 28 GD -11 Pts 20
Shenhua in 2014 according to the CSL table:
P 18 W 5 D 7 L 6 GF 20 GA 22 GD -2 Pts 22