It’s CSL time again! Shenhua’s 2015 season begins with a home “derby” against Shanghai Shenxin – will the weakest of the city’s three sides provide a welcome bedding-in ground for Tim Cahill and company?
A Brave New World
After a 2014 to forget, Shenhua owners Greenland spent the close-season attempting to repair their takeover PR disaster by reverting to a more fan-friendly club name and badge, along with signing a combination of decent domestic and overseas pros, along with the headline-stealing capture of Tim Cahill from New York. Of the side which ended 2015 with a drab 1-1 up in Liaoning, only captain Gio Moreno and portly custodian Qiu Shenjiong can consider themselves likely starters – and of the side who faced off in Jinshan in 2014’s reverse of this season-opener, three further players (Gao Di, Wang Shouting, and Bai Jiajun) are likely first-XI players.
Having been through two coaches in 2014, and made their full complement of close-season transfers – including a clear-out of four internationally-capped players through retirement and injury and replacement with a further seven – Shenhua will be a much-changed beast in 2015. Along with the obvious dynamite goalscoring input expected from Cahill, Shenhua’s success will depend on the answer to questions including how quickly the new-look side will gel, which of Stoppila Sunzu and Avraam Papadopolous will feature in central defence or defensive midfield, whether Li Jianbin can continue the development showed in his previous loan spell with Shenhua, and whether the cohort of Lv Zheng, Zhang Lu and Deng Zhuoxiang represent CSL journeymen or interrupted careers waiting to take back off.
Tim and Tactics
Perhaps the biggest question surrounds the shape and style of 2015’s new-look Shenhua under Francis Gillot. A side with a chronic lack of width slightly remedied the situation by signing two wide players — Lv and Zhang — although both are naturally right-sided. With Cahill thriving on aerial service, but Gio Moreno also best used through the middle, Shenhua may end up adopting a rather narrow formation — NTN’s preferred option would see Gao Di used as a lone striker with Cahill and Gio behind, and the inconsistent Luis Henrique the odd-foreigner-out — or mis-using one of their two center-forwards or plethora of natural playmakers as a faux left winger. Expect to see some tweaking and experimentation over the first few fixtures as the new signings and coach bed in.
A “Local” “Rivalry”?
Shenxin’s pseudo-Shanghai status has been well-documented and mocked here previously; constant stadium-moving has left the side with a very limited local fanbase, reflected by a truly dismal away showing for the Honkgou fixture last season. It’s clear that Shenhua-SIPG is the big local rivalry these days – and with both sides strengthening over the transfer window, this could become one of Asia’s great intra-city rivalries given time. Some spice will be added to this particular fixture due to former Shenxin captain and last season’s top-scorer Wang Yun potentially making his Shenhua debut — although whether the 31-year-old midfielder is needed or welcome at Hongkou may remain open to debate.
If Shenxin’s local credentials are up for question, then so is their competitive credibility in this fixture – Shenhua won both league fixtures and a cup quarter-final by two-goal margins last season, and have not been beaten by “Shenxin” since the 2011 season, their final year based in Nanchang. Perenially somehow scraping their way out of the relegation places, Shenxin have lost their captain and goalkeeper over the close-season, with the bulk of their signings making the step up from China League One – although Nigerian Daniel Chima comes with solid pedigree from Norway and may trouble a new-look Shenhua back-line.
Preview & Reality Check
You can’t really ask for a kinder start to the season than facing Shenxin; while the Nanchang/Jinshan/Pudong side can be counted on to provide some dour resistance for much of the game, Shenhua very much have a hex over their galline neighbors. It’s difficult to escape the conclusion that Shenhua have strengthened over the winter whereas Shenxin’s squad looks weaker – expect some early teething troubles for Timmy and co, but an ultimately comfortable 3-0 Shenhua win.
Steve Crooks is ‘s Shanghai Shenhua correspondent. Check his North Terrace News column each week for the latest club developments.
Shenhua in 2014 according to North Terrace News:
P 30 W 10 D 4 L 16 GF 29 GA 46 GD -17 Pts 34
Shenhua in 2014 according to the CSL table:
P 30 W 8 D 11 L 11 GF 33 GA 45 GD -12 Pts 35