CSL football resumes after the international break with a mouthwatering start to round 4: the China Derby, with table-topping Shanghai Shenhua taking their 100% record to Gongti to face off against traditional rivals Beijing Guoan. Can Shenhua avenge the pain of 2014?
Winning When Playing Badly
Round 3 at Hongkou wasn’t one for the purists — an extremely limited and defence-minded Tianjin TEDA set out to make Shenhua’s life difficult, with the table-topping Hongkou side struggling to find the fluency and vim which had marked their first two wins under coach Francois Gillot. The international attacking trident of Gio Moreno, Tim Cahill and Paulo Henrique couldn’t breach the massed Tianjin rearguard, and found fluency hard to come by — although both Moreno and Henrique suffered a couple of kicks during the first half — and the breakthrough and match-winner ultimately came down to the never-say–die attitude and attacking spirit of two of Shenhua’s most local players. Shanghai-born Cao Yunding chased down a lost cause to win back the ball and lay off an intelligent cutback for the marauding Bai Jiajun; the pint-sized Shanghainese left-back evaded a couple of challenges to slot home the winner and leap into the North Terrace crowd.
It’s the mark of a good side that they can win when playing without fluency, and to be able to break down an unambitious opponent; while the Tianjin game was not without frustration or occasional counter-attacking danger, nine points from nine marks a stunning start to the season for the born-again CSL pacesetters.
The Unstoppable Force Meets… The Unstoppable Force?
Guoan are on a remarkable run of their own — the capital side may only have drawn away to Hangzhou last time out, but they last tasted defeat in August 2014 — playing 18 games since then, winning 15 and drawing 3. These two sides come into the game bang in form, sitting first and their in the early-season table; something has to give.
Revenge, or More of the Same?
While the history of the China Derby stands deliciously poised at 11 wins apiece for these historical rivals, and Shenhua’s all-time record at Gongti isn’t as dreadful as Guoan’s Hongkou history, it’s not since the 2009 season that Shenhua have taken even a point from this fixture’s Beijing leg, with their last win coming in 2008. Last season marked a particular watershed, with a weakest-ever Shenhua side wilting at home to add to their annual capital punishment, and let Guoan finally break their Hongkou curse with an all-too-easy 3-0 win.
Coach Gillot has been in the local media iterating his understanding of the importance of this fixture from both a footballing and cultural perspective — will caution prevail, or will he once again aim to send his side out to play with freedom even in the cauldron of a Gongti China Derby?
Leading the Line
Having named an identical starting outfield 10 in each of Shenhua’s games thus far, Gillot may be forced into two changes due to injury — there are reports that both winger Lv Zheng and center-forward Paulo Henrique are struggling ahead of this match. While Lv’s natural width and quality first touch have helped Shenhua’s attacking shape in 2015, Henrique would be the undoubted bigger miss — the Brazilian is the league’s top scorer with four goals, and has been something of a revelation thus far in comparison to a damp-squib ending to 2014.
Gao Di would be the likely replacement for either of these players; Gao did give Guoan some troubles as a center-forward in 2014 (scoring a classic off-the-last-shoulder goal only to be given offside with no fewer than three defenders in green playing him on), although the temptation to pack the midfield and play Gao alongside Cao Yunding running off the hold-up play of either Cahill or Moreno as a makeshift #9 may also be an option for Friday evening’s big clash — provided that Henrique doesn’t recover, of course.
Preview & Reality Check
Head or heart? While Shenhua have stared 2015 with remarkable optimism and verve, and this is the best-prepared side to head north from Hongkou for a good couple of seasons, it’s difficult to call anything other than a home win given recent history and Guoan’s form. The capital side are well-settled and on a stunning run of form over a long period of time — were it not for Evergrande playing in a (financial and footballing) league of their own, this would be the best side in China.
Expect Shenhua to give it a real go — and there are few better players in the CSL for the big occasion than Moreno or Cahill — but Guoan’s composure and quality might ultimately prove a bridge too far here. 2-1 Guoan, although revenge will be served at Hongkou come this July.
Shenhua in 2015 according to North Terrace News:
P 3 W 2 D 0 L 1 GF 7 GA 3 GD +4 Pts 6
Shenhua in 2015 according to the CSL table:
P 3 W 3 D 0 L 0 GF 8 GA 2 GD +6 Pts 9
Steve Crooks is ’s Shanghai Shenhua correspondent. Check his North Terrace News column each week for the latest club developments.