Shanghai Shenhua finall have the chance to shift their focus away from a series of dead-rubbers in the league, and welcome Yangtze Delta rivals Jiangsu Sainty to Hongkou for the first leg of this season’s CFA Cup semi-finals. Do Sergio Batista’s band of experienced heads have one or two more big performances in them?
The Week That Was: Understudies Fluff Lines in “Dress-Rehearsal”
Batista took the eminently sensible move of keeping his powder dry for the midweek cup game in last Saturday’s league fixture at Shandong Luneng. While Luneng are overwhelming favorites to face the winner of the Shenhua-Sainty tie in the cup final, the Argentinean coach chose to rest his battery of South American attackers, selecting a distinctly second-string side who were barely able to compete with a strong Luneng side still making a late push for third spot in the league. The 2-0 outcome could have been much worse on Shenhua, although the big outcome is that the Hongkou side got through the fixture without accruing any injuries or suspensions — Lucas Viatri even making a cameo from the bench to get some much-needed minutes under his belt in his return from injury.
So second-string was Shenhua’s side that they fielded an XI with a total squad number of 253 — or an average of every man on the field wearing #23. Question for the CSL stat-fans — has there been a more second-string side fielded in the league this year?
The Big Issue: Stick or Twist?
It’s difficult — despite a season and half of evidence — to really know if Batista is by nature a more attacking or cautious coach. The World Cup winner has been hamstrung by a limited squad at Hongkou, particularly this season, leading to the necessity to play some players out of position and adopt a relatively cautious outlook — an outlook which, when all were fit, briefly looked to be reversed when throwing caution to the wind and starting with Gio Moreno, Paulo Henrique and Viatri as an attacking trident.
Cup semi-finals are frequently one of the nerviest affairs in football; playing at home in the first leg of a two-legged tie can also lead to a more defensive outlook, with the mantra being to avoid conceding an away goal at all costs. While it would be understandable for Shenhua to thus take a cagey approach to the fixture, attack really might be the best option here — Shenhua have won only two games outside of Shanghai against top-flight clubs in the past three years, with both those victories coming at troubled sides up in Dalian. If Shenhua don’t have an advantage to defend in the away leg, their cup run may effectively be over only half-way through the semi.
Coming Up: The Lord Mayor’s Show, and After the Lord Mayor’s Show
All focus is on the cup this week — opponents Sainty also rested some key players (notably talisman Sun Ke) and perhaps gave less than 100% in a home defeat to lowly Changchun over the weekend. For both sides the cup remains their only chance of glory, and only meaningful fixtures remaining in the season.
Going into the international break, Shenhua will have the opportunity for a feelgood follow-up to the cup with a home league game against Harbin on Saturday. A disappointing home reverse to Aerbin leaves Harbin almost — but not definitively — dead and buried. The step up in class, coupled with their long streak of difficult away games to begin the season — has left Harbin struggling to play catch-up all season, and anything other than victory at Hongkou would all but put the final nail into their coffin.
Prediction & Reality Check
Expect the bank-holiday cup derby to be loud, passionate and fraught — high on drama and tension, but lower on quality and composure. While Shenhua’s big-game form has been patchier this year than last, there remains enough team spirit and canny experience and wherewithal in the side to pull another backs-to-the-wall victory or two out of the bag. 1-0 Shenhua, with a moment of brilliance from either Gio or Henrique to give Shenhua something to defend in Nanjing.
Expect more goals in the following league fixture; Harbin’s goalscoring record hasn’t been bad (and is indeed better than Shenhua’s), but their defensive record has been little short of abysmal. Perhaps another 3-3 thriller isn’t on the cards here; but expect Harbin to go for broke and Shenhua to pick them off on the counter. 3-1 home win.
Shenhua in 2014 according to North Terrace News:
P 26 W 8 D 4 L 14 GF 23 GA 39 GD -16 Pts 28
Shenhua in 2014 according to the CSL table:
P 26 W 7 D 9 L 10 GF 27 GA 37 GD -10 Pts 30
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