After the Lord Mayor’s shows, Shenhua face a run of three lower-key fixtures before their final city derby of the season at the end of the month. Can Sergio Batista’s patched-up side avoid losing any more key men and avoid getting dragged into the relegation scrap?
The Week That Was: Stumbling into the Semis
Most weeks in which a side puts four past a city rival to march into the cup semi-finals would be considered a pretty good week for the football club and the fans. The problem for Shanghai Shenhua is that, the second half of Wednesday’s cup quarter-final against Shenxin aside, this was possibly the lowest ebb in the club’s history.
That proud China Derby record is gone — Hongkou was ransacked by visitors from the capital. While it’s possible to hide behind excuses of questionable officiating (in fairness, Guoan did have a legitimate goal chalked off also — to go with a legitimate goal and two penalties not being given to the home side) and the late nature of the goals which put the gloss on a 3-0 win, it’s impossible to argue that this hadn’t been coming, and that the current Shenhua squad is the worst in the club’s history, and not up to the standards of their historical rivals.
A home cup quarter-final against the hapless Shenxin should have been the best tonic possible in the circumstances, but a makeshift Shenhua side visibly lacked confidence and coherence — not to mention determination and work-rate — in an utterly abject 45 minutes of football. That the half-time score was 1-1 after such a poor showing is as much a reflection on Shenxin’s weakness as any kind of resolve from Shenhua; a real football team would have been out of sight by the interval against either side.
The Hongkou side do still have enough firepower in their South American forwards to see off many CSL sides, however — and so it proved, with Paulo Henrique and captain Gio Moreno both netting braces to send Shenhua to a semi-final date with Jiangsu Sainty and give the home crowd something to cheer about.
The Big Issue: Rebuilding Starts Here?
Avoiding the not-entirely-implausible scenario of Shenhua going into meltdown and crashing down the table, the remainder of the season has little in the way of meaning outside of the cup semis and the Shanghai Derby when East Asia come to Hongkou. This should give Batista and the club the opportunity to work towards something of a plan for next season — with serious close-season transfer business and investment from owners Greenland will be required if the horrors of the China Derby aren’t to be revisited in 2015.
Given the quotas in place on both transfers and foreign player slots, Shenhua really need to work out how much of this current lop-sided, short-handed squad can be built around for future success. Some of the key questions facing the management are:
Who’s playing in goal next season?
Wang Dalei’s boots are impossible to fill — he’s simply the best keeper in the domestic game in this correspondent’s view. There are essentially three options open to Shenhua: plan to stick with the portly Shanghainese Qiu Shenjiong, aim to make permanent the loan transfer of Geng Xiaofeng (the man displaced by Wang’s move to Shandong), or plan to buy a better keeper. In any case other than option #2, the man known as “Big Bull” should retain his place in the side for the remainder of the season.
Can Zheng Kaimu cut it at center-back?
Zheng has looked pretty poor in his last two run-outs, finally being selected at center-back in a move which may have been a long time coming. As we saw in his breakout season in defensive midfield two years ago, Zheng is a player who desperately needs game-time to build up his confidence and sharpness — given their lack of resources and the mystery surrounding Cho Byung-kuk’s fitness, Batista could do a lot worse than stick with Zheng for the coming months and see if things improve.
Who stays up front?
Gao Di’s season-ending leg-break in the Guoan game is a huge blow to Shenhua. The side have a genuine top-level domestic center-forward in their ranks; yet Gao will end the season having spent most of his time shunted out onto the wing or on the treatment table. His “goal” against Guoan was a perfect demonstration of timing a run off the last defender’s shoulder and keeping a cool head to slot home — NTN would be very interested to see Gao paired with either Henrique or Lucas Viatri in an orthodox front two.
Can anyone step up from the “deadwood”?
Fan Lingjiang, Wang Fei, Xiong Fei — play them for the rest of the season, and see who can hold down a starting role or at least offer something from the bench (we know already that Zhang Yilin can’t). Shenhua managers have been consistently criticized — here and elsewhere — for remaining loyal to a very small core squad and playing tired legs or players out-of-position rather than rotating. The mounting injury-enforced opportunities these fringe players are getting provides a platform they may never get again to prove they’re of CSL standard.
Coming Up: To Henan and back
In many ways a trip to a side fighting against relegation, and known for their hostile home atmosphere, is exactly what this Shenhua side and their fragile bodies and confidence could do without. Lose here, and lose badly, and the relegation trapdoor looks a lot closer than at has done for a number of weeks, particularly with Harbin’s run continuing lately. Don’t be surprised to see an ultra-cautious approach from the visitors, and an instantly forgettable game of football.
Predictions & Reality Check
Although Henan did get knocked out of the cup midweek by a lower-division side, they have begun to show some resolve of late and have clawed their way out of the relegation spots. It’s possible to see a valiant rearguard action and nicking a goal or two on the counter due to the individual talents of Moreno, Henrique and Viatri — but it’s also possible to see Shenhua slump to yet another away defeat with little more than a whimper. 1-0 to Henan for this correspondent’s money, leaving Shenhua needing some solid home performances to stay safe.
Shenhua in 2014 according to North Terrace News:
P 19 W 7 D 2 L 10 GF 19 GA 29 GD -10 Pts 23
Shenhua in 2014 according to the CSL table:
P 19 W 5 D 7 L 7 GF 20 GA 25 GD -5 Pts 22
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