Fresh from a remarkable away victory at Guangzhou R&F, Shanghai Shenhua remain top of the early-season table. Can they continue to banish memories of a grim 2014 with the visit of Tianjin TEDA on Sunday evening?
Breaking a Grim Streak
While statistics can be over-used in modern-day football, sometimes the numbers truly do speak for themselves:
59 games since winning away in a city other than Shanghai or Dalian; 59 games in which Shenhua had kept a total of 7 clean sheets and earned a paltry 44 points. 59 away games since their April 2011 win against Henan Jianye. Shenhua’s abysmal away record was finally snapped with a professional 1-0 victory at Asian Champions League side Guangzhou R&F in CSL round 2, keeping the Hongkou side top of the nascent 2015 standings on goal difference.
A Sleeping Giant Awakening?
Shanghainese media has been toasting the long-awaited return to form of one of the country’s traditional powerhouses; Shenhua have rarely strung together back-to-back wins in recent seasons, and keeping a clean sheet and winning away at one of the league’s premier sides in recent years is a genuine cause for celebration. What’s better, Shenhua are doing it in the true tradition of attacking Shanghainese football, and with a local boy pulling the strings — the reborn Cao Yunding was once again Shenhua’s most threatening player, and made the only goal of the game possible with a delicious lofted through-ball which put Gio Moreno in behind the defence to square for an unmarked Paulo Henrique to convert.
Makeshift right-back Zhang Lu has also been called up to the China national squad; after an underwhelming home debut, Zhang put in a solid shift in Guangzhou as part of a defensive unit which put in a focused, concentrated performance over 90 minutes — something this correspondent has rarely had the pleasure of noting in an away-from-home Shenhua fixture.
Team News: The Same Again?
Coach Francois Gillot surprisingly named the same attack-minded side who took apart Shanghai Shenxin to face R&F, with Wang Yun and Gio Moreno reprising their shield-less central midfield berths. With the side showing signs of gelling well at this early stage, the only injury concern regards goalkeeper Qiu Shenjiong — the “Big Bull” was substituted at half-time down at Yuexiushan as a precautionary measure having picked up a minor strain. Deputy Geng Xiaofeng performed ably in the second half, however, showing little sign of the brittleness which blighted a 2014 season which he began as first-choice. Otherwise, the Shenhua starting XI may be the same for the third straight game come Sunday.
What a Difference Six Months Makes?
Sunday October 26th, 2014. In their final home game of the fizzled-out season, Shenhua welcome a mid-table Tianjin side to Hongkou. A poor performance becomes truly shambolic in the second half, with the home side collapsing to concede a series of late goals which leave the visitors 5-2 up and being cheered by the home support; cheers rich in both irony and bitterness towards the deeply unpopular club owners.
Fast-forward six months — and with only one Hongkou fixture in between — and there’s a genuine feelgood factor back in force at Hongkou. Shenhua are playing bright, breezy football under a new manager, and Greenland have delivered a combination of CSL experience and the headline-grabbing signing of a genuine top-drawer international in Tim Cahill. With Tianjin’s early season stuttering somewhat — losing in Henan, and failing to find a way past Hangzhou at home — the scene could be set to banish the memories of last October much more quickly than expected. Shenhua being Shenhua, there is always the scope for hopes to deflate; Gillot has begun his own brand of expectation management by wisely pointing out that the true nature of this team shouldn’t be expected until 10 or so games into the season.
Preview & Reality Check
Shenhua have a point to prove here, and their run of favorable early-season home fixtures must be taken advantage of. Tianjin are yet to find any fluency in 2015, and enter this game without the suspended young Iranian defender Morteza Pouraliganji. Shenhua will however need to be wary of Argentine Hernan Barcos — a former Hongkou loanee and CSL golden boot winner, who arrived at Tianjin in the close season after rumors of a Changchun switch.
If Shenhua continue to gel and play the fluent, confident football they have begun the season with, they should be clear favorites here — Henrique is playing with confidence, and will fancy his chances of adding to his four goals and remaining the early frontrunner in the 2015 golden boot chase. With support from a bang-in-form Cao Yunding and the pedigree of Moreno and Cahill, it’s not unreasonable to expect Shenhua’s scoring streak to continue, and for some form of revenge to be exacted over the visitors — 3-1 to Shenhua.
Shenhua in 2015 according to North Terrace News:
P 2 W 1 D 0 L 1 GF 4 GA 2 GD +2 Pts 3
Shenhua in 2015 according to the CSL table:
P 2 W 2 D 0 L 0 GF 7 GA 2 GD +5 Pts 6
Steve Crooks is ’s Shanghai Shenhua correspondent. Check his North Terrace News column each week for the latest club developments.