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North Terrace News: Stumbling to Safety

Having completed another undefeated series of Shanghai Derby matches, the remaining 2014 CSL season holds little interest for Shanghai Shenhua. With all attention focused on the cup semi-finals, Shenhua head to one of the teams with much still to play for — Sven-Goran Eriksson’s Guangzhou R&F.

The Week that Was: Derby Honors Even

When blue meets red, there can only be one outcome: yet another passionate scrap for local pride in what is emerging as a truly white-hot derby. Despite having no strikers available (Gao Di and Paulo Henrique remaining unfit, and Lucas Viatri pulling up lame in the warm-up), Shenhua managed to take advantage of an electric Hongkou crowd, all the wiles of their very experienced line-up, and some characteristic big-game nerves from East Asia & their star man Wu Lei to take a share of the spoils against a much more coherent and cohesive side.

Jiang Kun, it seems, has a habit of turning up in big games and defying his creaking body and much footballing logic. In scenes reminiscent of his remarkable false-nine display against Beijing Guoan a couple of years back, the heavyweight midfield puffer managed a super-slow-motion run and turn, capped with a canny finish, to give Shenhua the lead — East Asia’s reply being equally unpredictable, with a Zhu Zhenrong cross-cum-shot leaving Qiu Shenjoing stranded and local honors even — for those of us who avert our eyes from league tables, at least.

The Big Issue: Nothing Really Matters

Despite sitting 7 points clear of the relegation spots with 7 to play, Shenhua can consider themselves pretty safe — there are a number of pretty poor sides sitting between Shenhua and the trapdoor, and it’s difficult to imagine two of the bottom four going on a late-season spree in the style of Qingdao in years past.

Shenhua thus embark on a series of dead rubbers, with the slight twist that a few of their remaining opponents actually have an awful lot to play for, whether at the top end of the table or in the relegation dogfight. The recent international break has made it all too clear how bloated and meaningless much of football can be — with particular thanks to UEFA and their cash-grabbing ruination of one of the leanest, most competitive tournaments remaining in the modern game — and a return to lower-mid-table action is hardly a thrilling vindication of the game for those following Shenhua.

In many instances, this could at least provide an opportunity for the coach to blood some youngsters or really run the rule over fringe players ahead of the close-season transfer business. In Shenhua’s case, expect Sergio Batista to continue to persist with shoehorning in as many South American forwards as are fit, with a midfield trio of the 36-year-old Jiang Kun, 29-year-old Wang Shouting, and 31-year-old center-half Paulo Andre — screening a center-back pairing of the 33-year-old Cho Byung-Kuk, 33-year-old midfielder Xu Liang, with 33-year-old Wang Changqing at fullback.

In some regards the Argentinean coach’s hands are tied by the lop-sided, talent-starved and age-ravaged squad bequeathed to him as a parting legacy of the Zhu Jun era — however, is it really too much to ask to see Zheng Kaimu given the chance to nail down a role at either center-back or midfield destroyer, to see Fan Lingjiang given two consecutive starts in the same position, a returning Gao Di given a chance to lead the line, or Wang Fei to get more game time?

Don’t bother with Zhan Yilin, though. We all know the answer to that question.

Coming Up: Tough Memories

Looking back to the season-ending game at Yuexiushan last season is difficult for Shenhua fans — partly due to the quality players in the side that day who are no longer with the club (Wang Dalei, Dai Lin, Song Boxuan…), and partly due to the ugly nature and contentious circumstances of that seemingly-madcap 4-2 defeat.

In the post-Beijing-Baxy era, it’s entirely possible that both Wangs will again line up at Yuexiushan this Saturday evening, alongside teammates of a significantly weaker caliber and against a team with much more to play for, and the CSL’s second top scorer to boot. R&F have every footballing reason to be equipped to give Shenhua a shellacking here — like those pesky cross-town neighbors Shenhua recently held at arm’s length, R&F are within touching distance of their first-ever chance at continental competition, and the fight for third spot between two teams with little CSL pedigree but strong form this season could well go down to the wire.

Prediction & Reality Check

Only outscored by their neighbors Evergrande, R&F offer a real attacking threat — particularly through Hamdallah and Davi. While the preview for the Hongkou version of this fixture turned out to be something of a false alarm — warning bells of high-scoring visitors resulting in one of the most flaccid 0-0 affairs this correspondent has ever seen — it’s likely to be a different story here. Shenhua have nothing to play for; R&F have everything to play for. 3-0 to the home side.

Shenhua in 2014 according to North Terrace News:

P 23   W 8   D 3   L 12   GF 22   GA 33   GD -11   Pts 27

Shenhua in 2014 according to the CSL table:

P 23   W 6   D 9   L 8   GF 26   GA 31   GD -5   Pts 27

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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