Despite a star signing and some half-decent domestic buys, Shenhua go into 2015 unlikely to finish top of the Shanghai mini-league, let alone trouble the business end of the CSL table.
The manager: New man Francis Gillot (no, me neither) may have endeared himself to some fans with a refusal to bow to the club owners’ wishes and sign former Evergrande player Qin Sheng — not until Qin loses some extra pounds anyway — but otherwise comes in with a strictly mixed pedigree from French football, and brings far from an inspirational name or track record to Hongkou. A couple of European qualifications and a cup win aren’t to be sniffed at, but an overall win % record of below 40 is also unimpressive; the appointment smacks somewhat of going down the foreign-for-the-sake-of-being-foreign route. Gillot does at least come in to replace a manager in Sergio Batista whose position had become somewhat untenable — tactical inflexibility, a failure to experiment with youth, and rumours of off-field meddling conspired to leave the once-inspiring Argentinean with a poor ending to his second Shenhua stint.
The history: With the name Shenhua re-integrated, and the badge changed back to something more respectable and less vegetable, we can almost pretend the heavy-handed Greenland PR of last season’s takeover is a long-forgotten memory. History is one of the few things Shenhua have going for them these days — one of the most venerable clubs in China has been taken through the wringer via Zhu Jun’s fire-sale policy (watching Wang Dalei and Wu Xi star in China’s impressive Asian Cup run brought back painful memories) and Greenland’s corporate re-branding in recent years.
The team: A 9th-place finish in 2014 felt about right for a distinctly mediocre side elevated through moments of genuine class from their South American superstars. With much of the spine of the side changing — along with the coach — there aren’t too many pointers to just how Shenhua will line up and operate in 2015.
The stadium: A trip to Hongkou is a must for the Chinese football enthusiast. Easily the best dedicated football stadium in the CSL, even a third-full Hongkou can generate an electric atmosphere, with the fans right on top of the pitch — handy given that the 33,000 capacity is rarely tested these days. The playing surface has seen better days, however — the municipal stadium not only hosts pop concerts, but was also converted into a mid-week driving range in 2014, with the divots to show for it.
The changes: As is traditional for Shenhua, somewhat significant. The club wrapped up the majority of their transfer business relatively early in the window and in a low-key manner, saving center-stage for the big Cahill unveiling. On-loan goalkeeper Geng Xiaofeng’s loan has been made permanent, with the former Shandong custodian likely to continue to battle it out with local-born chubster Qiu Shenjiong for the #1 jersey. Center-half Liu Jianbin makes a welcome return from Guangzhou Evergrande, this time on a permanent transfer — Liu started 2013 as a goal-conceded waiting to happen, but improved rapidly under the tutelage of the veteran Rolando Schiavi, and will do a solid job as a first-choice CSL center-back.
Shenhua’s remaining domestic transfers were a little more underwhelming; signing Lv Zhen from Shandong and Zhang Lu from Henan at least addresses (one side of) the squad’s chronic width issues, whereas the logic in bringing in the deeply-unpopular Wang Yun, 32 year-old captain of local rivals Shanghai “I can’t believe they still haven’t been relegated” Shenxin remains completely hidden.
Also inbound is an all-new foreign defence — Zambian Stoppila Sunzu, signed from Socheaux, brings genuine pedigree (along with a great name for a defender), with Australian-born Greek Avraam Papadopolous also bringing international experience and nous.
For a welcome change — and perhaps related to the fact that almost all Shenhua’s marketable players were asset-stripped in the Zhu Jun era — outgoing transfers have been few. A number of 2014’s foreign contingent return home — Lucas Viatri and Cho Byung-kuk were popular and dependable, if little more, and center-back Paulo Andre not even that. The retirement of Xu Liang and his precision dead-ball ability is a sad day, but truthfully time and injuries had caught up with Xu and he lacked the mobility to contribute from open play.
The foreigners: The keyreturning foreigner from 2014 is thus the side’s captain and talisman, Colombian #10 Gio Moreno. Potentially the most gifted player in the league (how many other players have you seen score a rabonna while almost falling down on their backside?), captain Gio even tries to tackle now and again these days. For all his ego and wastefulness, Moreno has become undeniably integral to Shenhua in the past two seasons, and the side may well be playing in China League One were it not for the mercurial playmaker.
Brazilian forward Luis Henrique is the remaining half of the 2014 strikeforce — where Viatri offered power and clean finishing, Henrique is all about running and risk-taking. The verdict remains somewhat out on Henrique — flaky finishing and unreliable dribbles saw his half-season get worse on an almost game-by-game basis, and this writer in particular can’t help but feel that Shenhua kept the wrong half of their strikeforce.
The star: Hailed as the “biggest Asian signing in CSL history“, a city and nation expects from Tim Cahill. Although 35, Cahill remains a deadly presence in front of goal — evidenced most recently against China themselves in the Asian Cup. Cahill is his nation’s all-time leading scorer, and netted over 100 times in English football — the midfielder with a giant leap and spectacular volley will be expected to lead the goalscoring threat for Shenhua. Corner flags of China, you have been warned.
The youngster: Does Bai Jiajun still count as young? A key part of Shenhua’s backline, the pint-sized left-back is a Duracell bunny up and down the flank, and at 23 should still have his best days well ahead of him.
The X factor: Tactics, tactics, tactics — Gilliot is left with the interesting dilemma of making the best of a traditionally lop-sided squad. Alongside Henrique, Gao Di is the only other senior striker — the 25-year-old looking great in flashes last year, but being held back by being consistently deployed out wider and from suffering a nasty mid-season injury. While Shenhua have only two real wingers (and those the incoming signings), this is nevertheless an improvement on last side’s zero — and to further complicate the mix, both Moreno and Cahill are nominal central midfielders whose goalscoring exploits are their key strengths. How this new-look Shenhua line up should be interesting to see indeed.
The prediction: Lacking any domestic internationals or real width, and with a defence which once again has neither played together nor speaks a common language playing in front of a goalkeeper suffering from either brittle confidence or a pie fetish — what’s not to be confident about for 2015? Shenhua will undoubtedly have their moments, particularly through star turns from Moreno and Cahill, but it’s difficult to see a coherent team emerging from Greenland’s attempts at squad building, and it would reflect a genuine surprise if Shenhua were to overcome their newly-moneyed neighbours SIPG as the city’s top-dog. Too star-studded for a relegation fight, and too incoherent for an ACL push, 2015 could well be a funny old year down at Hongkou; expect another finish of halfway or thereabouts.
Steve Crooks is ‘s Shanghai Shenhua correspondent. Check his North Terrace News column each week for the latest club developments.