Fresh from their annual Gongti surrender, can Shenhua pick themselves and their 2015 feelgood factor back up off the floor with a home fixture against basement-dwelling Chongqing Lifan come Saturday?
Battered in Beijing
In spite of early-season form and optimism, few rational observers will have been surprised by Shenhua returning from Beijing Guoan tails between legs — Guoan are a well-organized CSL side with plenty of quality, experience and stability, and it’s been years since Shenhua took anything home from Gongti. Defeats to bitter rivals are never easy for supporters to swallow, but it’s not cause for panic stations just yet — particularly with the weekend bringing an excellent opportunity for Shenhua to get back to winning ways.
The game itself was something of a slow-burner — Shenhua starting brightly and having the ball in the net through Tim Cahill, only for yet another Shenhua goal against Guoan to be disallowed for offside — although in a novel turn of events, the Shenhua player was in fact ahead of his marker and in an illegal position this time around. Shenhua retreated further and further behind their own 18-yard line as the game went on, and were ultimately undone by a penalty rebound from Darko Matic in the 75th minute — Geng Xiaofeng initially saving a weak penalty from Pablo Batalla — and then Erton Fejzullahu wrapping up the points in the 90th minute as Shenhua threw men forwards more in expectation than hope.
Glass Half Full? Team Spirit & Solid Signings
It’s not quite stretching the facts to say that Shenhua were undone last Friday by a lucky rebound from a dubious penalty, and then an injury-time second against a side chasing the game. Even in the absence of key players, Francois Gillot’s side was compact and well-drilled, with close-season signings Wang Yun and Li Jianbin running the midfield and marshalling the defence respectively.
Glass Half Empty? Concerns Over the Squad
It’s not quite stretching the facts to say that Shenhua were undone last Friday by a lucky rebound from a dubious penalty, and then an injury-time second against a side chasing the game… but to do so completely misses the point. Shenhua were remarkably flat, narrow and one-dimensional in possession, and offered little to no ambition for much of the game. With their one natural winger and mobile top scorer out of the side, it’s difficult to see where the goals come from — seeing Song Boxuan wreak havoc as the first half’s outstanding player was particularly galling for Shenhua fans who’ve seen their side shed quality wide men over recent seasons (granted, Song showing a propensity for diving and then completely going missing after the break before being subbed off reminded them that there’s two sides to every coin).
While coach Gillot has put together a solid first XI, his unwillingness to make substitutions perhaps reflects a realization of the lack of quality options in the squad — Greek international Avraam Papadopolous had a rotten debut, spending 90 minutes mostly hacking at opposition players, thin air, or the ball. And when you’re chasing a game and Jiang Kun is the first option you look to…
The Way Forward
While Gillot has made an impressive start to life at Shenhua — taking advantage of the control allowed to him by the Greenland owners and getting the team playing stylish football to begin with — it’s possible that his selection at Gongti was a little too defensive. Shutting up shop away to your greatest rivals — on a ridiculous run of form of their own — can make sense, but given that much of Shenhua’s attacking threat this season has come from the dynamic movement of the injured Paulo Henrique, opting for Tim Cahill as a lone forward was slightly puzzling, particularly with the benched Gao Di offering more of a like-for-like replacement for Henrique. Slotting midfielder Deng Zhuoxiang, who looks more comfortable in the middle, into the right-wing berth vacated by Lv Zheng was also something of a puzzler, although the squad is remarkably short on natural wide men.
With no word yet on whether Paulo or Lv will be back for the weekend, it’s clear that more of the same won’t work — Cahill’s workrate and finishing skills may remain second to none, but a natural target man he is not, and the Australian was horribly isolated for much of the Guoan game. For this correspondent, Gao must start in place of either Paulo or Lv should they remain unfit, with Shenhua needing to take the game to their visitors come Saturday.
Preview & Reality Check
Chongqing come to town sturggling to adjust to life at the top table following their promotion. One point from four games indicates they’re in for a season of struggle — even with the veteran Sun Jihai anchoring their defence — even if two of those games were against last season’s top two. Shenhua comfortably swatted aside Lifan in Chongqing in last season’s cup run — Lucas Viatri (remember having more than one striker in the squad?) netting twice and creating a third in his Shenhua debut — and will be expected to do the same come Saturday and get their strong start to 2015 back on track.
Shenhua have something of a record of struggle in games they’re expected to win comfortably — unless Shanghai Shenxin are their opponents — with their last Hongkou fixture against Tianjin the latest example in a catalogue of underwhelming performances which suggest either motivational issues or a lack of creative spark. While Gillot has brought a degree of freedom to the side’s play, football teams don’t completely change their nature overnight, and Shenhua can be expected to huff and puff for a little while against a massed defence come Saturday, before taking all three points with a 2-0 win.
Shenhua in 2015 according to North Terrace News:
P 4 W 2 D 0 L 2 GF 8 GA 5 GD +3 Pts 6
Shenhua in 2015 according to the CSL table:
P 3 W 3 D 0 L 1 GF 8 GA 4 GD +4 Pts 9
Steve Crooks is ’s Shanghai Shenhua correspondent. Check his North Terrace News column each week for the latest club developments.