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North Terrace News: Dress Rehearsal in Jinan?

After snapping out of a poor run of form, Shenhua tune up for next week’s cup semi-final first leg with a trip to their potential final opponents. Can Shandong Luneng avenge their earlier defeat at Hongkou?

The Week That Was: Shenhua Snap a Losing Streak

Last Saturday saw Shanghai Shenhua earn a valuable 1-0 win in a relatively low-stakes game against Guizhou Renhe. Having stuttered of late in the league, there were a number of welcome signs at Hongkou – Shenhua kept a clean sheet, secured three points which leave them almost certainly clear of the relegation battle, and were finally able to call on a couple of bona-fide attackers in the first team. Paulo Henrique showed that little of his class or sharpness had been dulled by a recent stint on the sidelines, scoring the only goal of the game in the first half by rounding the keeper following a clever piece of midfield play from Cao Yunding.

A late-season clash between a side probably too good to go down against visitors not quite good enough for continental competition was never likely to set the pulse racing – nonetheless Shenhua displayed a welcome return to some kind of solidity, limiting Guizhou’s threat primarily to set pieces and speculative efforts, although the home side were unable to create many more chances than the one sharply-taken winner.

The Big Issue: Goalkeeper Crisis?

It would have to come in a game featuring Wang Dalei, wouldn’t it? This season’s early-rounds encounter at Hongkou was notable for the emotional post-game reception from both the stands and their former #1 himself, even if the only ‘keeper walking away with a clean sheet was Wang’s erstwhile understudy Qiu Shenjiong.

That game marked the beginning of Qiu’s run in the side, displacing the ineligible and never-quite-convincing Geng Xiaofeng, signed on loan from Luneng to replace the big-money club legend moving in the opposite direction. Geng is once again ineligible to face his parent club – a situation made more problematic by Qiu being a major injury doubt for this game. The porky custodian is in light training, but suffering limited mobility and ability to dive (a situation which the more cynical fan may reflect upon as being not too far away from normal service where Qiu is concerned), leaving Hongkou’s #3 an opportunity to step into the firing line.

27-year-old Shen Jun has played one game of first team football in the past four years – and that a game in which he failed to last an hour. A reserve goalkeeper’s lot is one of the more curious positions in football, and playing time is particularly limited in a league as undemanding as the CSL in terms of fixture congestion – sides rarely play more than once per week, the league season is relatively short at 30 games, and there are very few cup games to distract form the league campaign. The man signed from Guizhou in the close-season finally has an opportunity to show he is something more than a professional bench-warmer – for someone routinely selected behind both a roly-poly former comic figure and his talented yet incredibly brittle understudy, Shen does not come into this fixture inspiring confidence.

Coming Up: Cup Preview?

It’s another relative dead rubber for Shenhua, although Shandong’s recent upswing in form sees this undoubtedly talented squad in with a solid shout of pipping Shanghai East Asia to fourth spot, with third place – and automatic ACL qualification – looking a bit of a stretch given Guangzhou R&F’s headstart. Luneng will much prefer their chances of continental qualification – and silverware to boot – through the CFA cup, in which they are overwhelming favorites against second-tier local rivals Qingdao Hainiu in the semis, before taking on the victor of the Shenhua-Sainty clash in the final.

As a result, this could well be a dress-rehearsal for this season’s cup final – Shandong undoubtedly the better side on paper, but Shenhua somehow hanging on due to a never-say-die attitude, bags of experience and wiles, and moments of individual brilliance. Given both sides’ upcoming fixtures – not least the midweek semi-final first legs – it may be more of an outing for the understudies than the leading lights, however.

Shenhua’s greatest chance of a victory here must come from the temptation for Cuca to rotate his Luneng side for the challenges to come – in addition to the two-legged semi-final, Shandong also face both East Asia and R&F in what could be crucial league games in the race for third. While Shenhua have little left to play for in the league however, they also have a crucial cup semi coming up next week, along with a league match against relegation strugglers Henan which is almost a must-not-lose fixture to avoid any last-minute drama.

Prediction & Reality Check

Regardless of which side rests the more players, Shandong have a much stronger squad and more reason to go for this game — both for revenge for their Hongkou mugging and for their faint hopes of third — not to mention the very unknown quantity who may be lining up in nets for the visitors. 2-0 Shandong and a little more Shenhua soul-searching ahead of the big game against Jiangsu.

Shenhua in 2014 according to North Terrace News:

P 25   W 8   D 4   L 13   GF 23   GA 37   GD -14   Pts 28

Shenhua in 2014 according to the CSL table:

P 25   W 7   D 9   L 9   GF 27   GA 35   GD -8   Pts 30

Steve hosts the Chinese Football Podcast, having joined the WEF team as correspondent for Shanghai Shenhua, the side he has followed since moving to Shanghai in 2010. Exiled from the Victorian town-centre idyll of Feethams along with his childhood football team, Steve spent many an (un)happy year on Hongkou's North Terrace along with the Shenhua Element Crew and Blue Devils before relocating to Sydney from where he continues to follow the Chinese game from afar.

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