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North Terrace News: Shenhua’s Season Ends Early

Shanghai Shenhua head into the international break off the back of what is essentially a season-ending week: all but out of the cup, all but guaranteed to stay up. Some key contract re-signings kick off the planning for a better 2015.

Put In Their Place

All the jubilation regarding Shenhua’s cup run and potential ACL qualification prospects was quickly extinguished in a frustrating night at Hongkou midweek, in which the home side took far too long to get started and conceded two easily-avoidable goals — more than a cruel deflection for the first and shocking individual error from Wang Changqing for the second, the degree to which Shenhua’s midfield and defence sat back and granted their visitors space to attack was simply asking for trouble. The pressing game still has some way to go until it reaches north Shanghai, clearly.

The night was also a pertinent reminder in just how lacking this Shenhua squad is — removing just one or two players from the strongest XI (defensive screen Wang Shouting and Argintinean hit-man Lucas Viatri not starting here) leaves a side simply unable to compete with the better sides in the CSL. While Shenhua injected some much-needed urgency and bite with the second-half introduction of Viatri, it was too little, too late — the damage had been done in one of the worst first-half displays produced by even this traditionally slow-starting side.

Staying Up

Many fans voted with their feet by not attending Saturday night’s relatively important league match — a 2-1 home win not definitively sealing anything, but leaving Shenhua almost certainly safe, and visitors Harbin Yiteng almost certainly relegated back to China League One. In a match which was much more fun and incident-packed than recent Hongkou affairs, Shenhua got off to a reasonable start, only to concede their customary go-behind goal to a ten-man Harbin side — Brazilian forward Dori sent off for a rush of blood to the head in the first half, and remarkable not joined by any team-mates following a spot of ref-shoving. Hongkou clearly has an effect on relegation-bound sides at the end of the year — memories of Zhu Ting’s remarkable meltdown for Wuhan last season spring to mind.

Once again the introduction of Viatri from the bench turned the game, with the target man turning provider for Paulo Henrique to net two close-range headers — the first a neat goal-bound effort from a Zhan Yilin cross (Zhan, incidentally, putting in possibly his first-ever decent Shenhua performance in a late cameo which started with inexplicable booing for either Zhan, or the departing Fan Lingjiang — Hongkou, you are better than that),  and the second a truly towering header over the goalkeeper to knock Cao Yunding’s center back across to the onrushing Henrique — who celebrated with a knee-slide which left a lasting mark in Hongkou’s golf-beaten surface.

Cao thus ended his 100th Shenhua appearance with a win, and put in a handy performance deployed as a second striker behind Henrique for much of the game.

One South American Question Answered, Another Open

Much debate has centered around which of Shenhua’s South American forwards should start — the statuesque-yet-lethal Viatri, or the flamboyant-yet-flaky Henrique? On the evidence of this week, the answer is clearly both — even if that leaves the side with only one recognized center-back. While the description of each of them as “half a striker” by a certain correspondent may be a little (although only a little) harsh, the pair clearly have complementary strengths — Viatri can lead the line and finish, and Henrique can make things happen in 1-on-1 situations and make darting runs. It’s decided, then — Shenhua’s first-choice side should include Gio Moreno, Viatri and Henrique — regardless of what that does to the rest of the team’s balance.

The man tasked with deciding that balance is Argentinean coach Sergio Batista, who signed a new contract — reportedly for three years — midweek. The timing was somewhat strange to say the least, coming off the back of a big cup game in which the coach had clearly selected the wrong starting lineup and failed to galvanize his players for the first half. Taking a step back, Shenhua fans remain in the curious position of still not really knowing if their manager — despite almost two years of evidence — is particularly good or bad. Constantly hamstrung by interference from above and a shocking asset-stripped squad, Batista’s true test may well come next season if the expected (or simply hoped-for) injection of funds and quality from the Greenland group takes place and leaves him with an actual squad to work with.

While there were some raised eyebrows and dissenting voices at the time of the contract-signing, North Terrace News retains a cautiously positive view on Batista. Football can be a very short-termist, knee-jerk game — it’s worth pointing out that, as hard as the cup defeat hurts right now, this season has to go down as a moderate success on the pitch — currently sitting in the top half of the table, and having made the cup semis, Shenhua have exceeded expectations a little — this writer even predicted relegation following yet another pre-season of Zhu Jun’s firesale asset-stripping and controversy generated by the new owners’ heavy-handed PR attempts. Had Shen Xiangfu remained in charge, it’s entirely possible that Shenhua would be sitting much closer to the relegation scrap right now.

The case against Batista centers around the side’s frequent poor starts, along with an over-reliance on individual brilliance from their forwards, and the high-profile capitulations against Beijing Guoan and Sainty this year. Short of pulling off a barely-credibly turnaround in the cup second-leg, the verdict on Batista will remain out for some fans until next season’s evidence.

The Shape of Things to Come

Batista was not the only contract re-signee this week — veteran Korean center-back Cho Byung-Kuk has also extended to the end of 2015. Although Cho’s solid start to the season has begun to look a little shakier of late — and a player approaching his mid-30’s is not going to get any quicker next season — it’s a welcome move to keep some kind of stability in the back-line, and a solid use of the AFC player spot given Shenhua’s otherwise top-heavy foreign policy.

Assuming that the trifecta of Gio, Henrique and Viatri return in 2015, focus thus shifts onto how well owners Greenland can make use of their domestic transfer allocation. A center-back and two genuine wingers must be top of the list — with a right-back, goalkeeper, back-up defender and box-to-box midfielder not far behind on this correspondent’s wishlist.

It would be possible to fill all these boxes with one swift reversal of the Zhu Jun firesale transfer policy, of course — Dai Lin, Feng Renliang, Song Boxuan, Wu Xi, Wang Dalei, and Qiu Tianyi/Li Jianbin filling the respective slots on this list; although perhaps the “box-to-box” description, along with terrace reception, would be a bit of a struggle for former favorite turned Shenxin turncoat Yu Tao.

Reality Check

Shenhua in 2014 according to North Terrace News:

P 27   W 9   D 4   L 14   GF 26   GA 40   GD -14   Pts 31

Shenhua in 2014 according to the CSL table:

P 27   W 8   D 9   L 10   GF 29   GA 38   GD -9   Pts 33

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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