Fresh from their most spectacular derby win yet, Shenhua head south for a true early-season test of their 2015 quality — was the Shenxin slaughter a flash in the pan, or can Shenhua live with the CSL’s top sides? Friday evening will reveal all.
Top of the League
It would be remiss not to point out that Shanghai Shenhua go into round 2 sitting pretty at the top of the CSL table. While even the most one-eyed Shenhua fan would accept that the table is pretty meaningless after only 1 game, and that a home fixture against a hapless Shenxin is a great way to run up the goal difference, this is a feelgood news story for a support base which has had an increasingly short supply of positives to cheer over recent years — the Hongkou faithful can be excused for lapping up this early-season filip.
A Breath of Fresh Air
While there was much pre-season optimism regarding Shenhua’s arrivals and their chances for 2015 (not necessarily reflected by all pundits) , few could have expected the season opener to provide such a sweeping morale-booster. Playing with two forwards, attacking from the off, keeping the pressure on their opponents even once ahead, always looking for more goals, and playing with a freedom and creativity which has not been visible for years — Francois Gillot’s line-up was almost unrecognizable from the gritty, streetwise Shenhua sides who have pulled off some remarkable smash-and-grabs over the past couple of seasons. Last Sunday was champagne football for a crowd accustomed to the prosaic.
Ranking the New Men
Six of Shenhua’s close-season signings began in the starting XI against Shenxin, with the majority making a strong contribution. All eyes were on Tim “Timmy” Cahill for his CSL debut — while the Australian, interestingly deployed as a center-forward alongside Paulo Henrique, didn’t trouble the scoresheet, his intelligent movement and constant presence clearly unsettled the Shenxin rearguard and opened space for team-mates.
Perhaps the standout debut came from Wang Yun — Shenxin’s former captain perhaps had a point to prove against his former side, having received some lukewarm responses from Shenhua fans following his signing. Shenhua’s new #20 slotted into the shirt and role vacated by the newly-retired Xu Liang with great poise and purpose, delivering a quality performance in the center of the park which married industry with classy ball distribution and recycling.
The center-back pairing of the returning Li Jianbin and Stoppila Sunzu will be tested more thoroughly in future; Li perhaps had the more composed game, with Sunzu bulleting a late header into the top corner to begin his Shenhua career in style. With Sunzu and Cahill on board, Shenhua’s set-piece strengths from early 2014 are likely to be reprised this season.
The entire right side of the team was also new — while Zhang Lu looked every inch a midfielder playing out of position, and the latest version of Shenhua’s dodgy-right-back rotation cycle, Lv Zheng had a solid debut on the wing. Smart running and a neat first touch were not always backed up by vision or quality delivery, but the presence of a genuine natural wide player in the ranks was nonetheless good to see, and provided some welcome balance.
Old Men Reinvented
Rivaling Wang for the best-player-not-to-score-a-hat-trick award last Sunday was Cao Yunding; could 2015 finally be Cao’s season? Deployed as an orthodox left-winger, Cao linked up well with the overlapping Bai Jiajun and provided a constant threat to the Shenxin defence; it was his shot which lead to the opener, and his penetration which lead to a series of first-half chances.
The star of the show, however, was undoubtedly Paulo Henrique. After a disappointing end to 2014, Henrique was criticized heavily in these quarters (“this writer in particular can’t help but feel that Shenhua kept the wrong half of their strikeforce” may come back to haunt), but showcased his very best elements against Shenxin — constant running, a top-drawer first touch, and some genuine South American flair; one goal may have been a tap-in, but the others were created through an exquisite touch and drag-back, and a delicious chip over the onrushing keeper. We’ve been here before, of course — Henrique looked the real deal upon signing mid-2014, only to lose his way and run into blind alleys as the season went on — but more of the same would see the Brazilian in with a great chance of staying in touch with the CSL top-scorer race over the year.
Cause for Caution
The problem with lining up 4-4-2 with two playmakers in the middle is that the defence can be exposed by better teams; captain Gio Moreno can be a frustrating presence when playing deeper, and contributed little of note against Shenxin aside from a smartly-taken penalty. With the defence yet to gel and a lack of solidity in the middle of the park, Shenhua are certainly looking like an interesting team to watch this season; don’t expect too many clean sheets at either end of the pitch.
Preview & Reality Check
While Shenhua’s home fixtures provide a kind start to the season, their run of away games is much more testing. Guangzhou R&F have had the hex over Shenhua since their return to top-flight football, and are looking to combine a successful start to both the CSL and Asian Champions League under new coach Cosmin Contra. Having lost Sven at the helm, along with star man Davi, the side seem not to have not missed too many beats — danger man Abderazzak Hamdallah must be looking forward to Shenhua’s open brand of football coming to town.
Depending on how willing to adapt or compromise Gillot is, this could be an interesting game; Shenhua away has by an large been a damage-limitation snoozefest in recent years, a few high-scoring thrillers aside. Without protection from the middle of the park, it’s difficult to see Shenhua coming away unscathed here — and R&F are a pedigree CSL side right now. Expect Shenhua to have their moments, but to walk away pointless from a 2-1 R&F win.
Shenhua in 2015 according to North Terrace News:
P 1 W 1 D 0 L 0 GF 3 GA 0 GD +3 Pts 3
Shenhua in 2015 according to the CSL table:
P 1 W 1 D 0 L 0 GF 6 GA 2 GD +4 Pts 3
Steve Crooks is ’s Shanghai Shenhua correspondent. Check his North Terrace News column each week for the latest club developments.