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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 is WEF's Shanghai Shenhua correspondent, having followed the side since moving to Shanghai in 2010. Exiled from the Victorian town idyll of Feethams along with his childhood football team, Steve can now be found enjoying/enduring matchdays on Hongkou's North Terrace along with the rest of the (in)famous Shenhua Element Crew.

5 Comments

5 Comments

  1. Cameron Wilson

    07/10/2014 at 13:27

    I think that sums things up excellently Mr Crooks. Although for me I think Shenhua should start afresh with a new coach. Batista certainly has been hamstrung by all sorts of things outwith his control, but that makes it all the more vital to nail things under your control and in my view he’s failed to do that.

    As the season has wore on, it’s clear that there are some reserves who actually are worth a shot. Wang Fei has shown himself to be useful, even getting on the scoresheet, yet he’s not started a single game this season except for the reserve match against Shandong the other week. Chen Boliang the same. Yet Batista insists on hammering square pegs into round holes, sticking with the awful Wang Changqing at right-back rather than give more reserves a shot. Batista is far too pliant and willing to play club politics, presumably for some sort of gain.

    Also on the pitch, Gao Di always played out of position? Paulo and Xu Liang playing in each other’s positions? Maybe there’s reasons for Gao Di playing where he does. But is there anyone else other than Batista think overweight Qiu Shenjoing is a better keeper than China-capped Geng Xiaofeng?

    It’s no surprise that suddenly we have lots of South American signings now Batista is here. That’s not bad in itself of course, but the quality is questionable. Paulo has played pretty appallingly for someone of his pedigree. Henrique for me looks the best player of the signings this season, but his finishing is a bit suspect and he was dreadful against Harbin even although he scored twice. Viatri scored an excellent goal and some other good ones when he joined, but he’s a very limited player and basically a better version of Dady. Batista has to take responsibility for these signings, if he’s not behind them then who is? I worry that there are financial incentives for certain individuals connected to the club when it comes to signings which explains why the turnover of foreign players is absurdly high, Batista may be a part of that.

    From what I hear Batista is very lax in training, that’s exactly what Chinese players don’t need. A relaxed approached is fine in a professsional environment, but SHenhua’s professionalism is suspect. So it;s probably not the right approach. Plus the fact Batista is back working at Shenhua after leaving last year suggests he returned only because he couldn’t find a job back home.

    Of course some of the above is hearsay and perhaps a bit cynical on the part of player signing policy. But Shenhua really need a serious clear out. I’d get rid of everyone except Gao Di, Moreno, Cho, Cao Yunding, and Bai Jiajun. Perhaps keep Henrique and Geng if we can’t get Wang Dalei back. And a few young players probably worth hanging on to. But the rest, including Batista, clear them out.

    Seriously, that’s how bad it is in my eyes.

  2. Steve Crooks

    07/10/2014 at 15:06

    Hard to disagree with some of that, particularly the withering verdict on the squad. I do think we’ll have to agree to disagree on Batista though — I’m not a huge fan, but we looked truly awful under Shen and I give Batista credit for some of the fighting spirit showed last year and this — albeit not when it mattered in the very biggest games this year sadly.

    Xu Liang at CB — along with Zheng Kaimu at CB — was worth an experiment given our complete lack of domestic center-halves, even if neither has truly worked out there. Paulo Andre on the pitch has rarely worked out this year, and sticking a lumbering wardrobe of a player in midfield really does defy logic.

    Qiu/Geng is a bit of a Viatri/Henrique issue for me — they’re each half a goalkeeper. Geng is technically better, but too flaky and brittle. Qiu is fat and has suspect handling at times, but you can’t fault his cojones. Sadly we can’t play both of them in this case…

    On top of the players you mention, I’d build around a Henrique-Viatri front two, and reckon that it’s worth holding onto Wang Shouting, Xu, Zheng, Fan Lingjiang Wang Fei and… Christ, maybe even Zhan Yilin, just to keep some kind of squad depth. Agree that big changes are needed if we’re to compete next year, and that the expectations on the coach should rightfully be a heck of a lot higher if this happens.

    On the coaches issue… perhaps worth noting that both Wang Fei and Zheng Kaimu had decent breakthroughs during the all-too-brief Tigana era and have been treading water ever since?

  3. Cameron Wilson

    08/10/2014 at 12:18

    The squad scenario you describe is sensible and is actually what is most likely to happen next season. I think when I talk about having such a huge clear out that is an ideal scenario based on getting clearly better replacements. Which is much easier said than done of course, so your scenario would be solid.

    Zheng Kaimu and Wang Fei I think would be first team regulars under a better coach.

  4. feilipu

    10/10/2014 at 18:29

    Speaking of flaky, any more news Batista riding around on garbage trucks? That was one of the most fascinating stories you guys have ever reported.
    I’ve always been interested in the logistics of trash removal in the city, but he took it to a whole other level.

    • Cameron Wilson

      11/10/2014 at 10:30

      Actually being honest I’d like to spend a day riding around with those guys as well, seeing some parts of the city that are normally out of bounds. Not sure I share Batista’s level of enthusiasm for it though.

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