History is not something that can yet be applied to Chinese football in large doses, but there is already something of a resonance to this Shanghai derby, as, on Sunday evening, Shenhua and East Asia again provided an encounter charged with something more than your average CSL fixture.
Possibly the largest away following in Hongkou history (two tiers, no less) contributed to the most intense atmosphere in many years, and those in attendance witnessed a game that seems to have been around longer than it has – East Asia’s remarkable rise through the divisions already consigned to history as they’ve come to establish themselves as serious top-tier material. History, however, is pretty much all their local rivals have – Shenhua can point towards the record books with far greater conviction than they can to the future. This isn’t lost on the supporters, the dominant blue half of the city indignant at the upstarts, while the ever-growing reds wonder why the cross-town dinosaurs still suck up all the attention.
Even the match itself played out with a nod to the past, from out-of-shape goalscorers to mishit goals and even a dose of fan violence beforehand (which the extensive army presence somehow manage to overlook). Jiang Kun has been something of a joke to Shenhua fans in recent seasons – his physical decline not in keeping with lung-busting attempts to break into the final third – but he has successfully remodelled himself in a more statesman-like role this year, charged mainly with keeping hold of the ball and providing long-range artillery support in search of late goals. All of which was duly disregarded as he somehow found himself an outnumbered lone striker latching onto a hopeful punt from midfield – surprising enough in itself, even before the excellent finish which followed. It bore the hallmark of any great derby goal – one that couldn’t be recreated if everyone involved were given a hundred opportunities to do so.
Perhaps the only reference to modern athleticism on show was East Asia’s top-scorer Tobias Hysen, the Swedish striker cutting a lithe figure against a Shenhua rearguard less obviously employed as professional sportspeople. His physical and mental sharpness was enough to create that most contemporary of chances – exaggerated (but legitimate) contact in the area leading to a penalty. The penalty itself was less in keeping with modern precision, however – Qui Shengjiong dismissing Wu Lei’s attempt in much the same way he must approach dietary sports science.
Gio Moreno ebbs around the fixture, but even his talents have something of a bygone era about them – a hark back to a simpler time when the talented didn’t have to work so hard and playmaking was largely done through gesticulation in the centre circle. The absence of Shenhua’s new-look strikeforce meant he led the line for the home side, with all the efficiency of a sports car at an off-road rallycross. Elsewhere, ageing holding midfielder Xu Liang does a job as a confused-looking centre back, while centre back Paulo Andre does a job as a confused-looking holding midfielder, in what is either revolutionary tactical innovation or an attempt to keep the fixture compelling. Even the coaches seem dedicated to instilling something special.
The sides are finally leveled in a way just as curious as their separation – Zhu Zhengrong attempting to steer the ball towards an onrushing strikeforce and instead looping it perfectly into the far corner of the net. East Asia have the better chances to win the game outright, but slapstick Shenhua defending is enough to keep the scores level and the game in a sepia-toned state of history still being made.
History, it seems, is one of many things that separate the great European sides from their new world counterparts – and while China might well be ahead of the curve in terms of corporate ownership and disembodied clubs floating around the country, it’s good to know that there’s a fixture which really is beginning to create a timeline of its own. Not that East Asia will worry too much about history – a city whose football landscape has been dominated by Shenhua since their inception is finally on the turn, it seems. Champions League qualification is now the aim for the younger side, and continental competition would certainly cement their place as local top dogs.