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North Terrace News: More Questions Than Answers as Hangzhou Come to Hongkou

An all-too-predictable failure in Zhengzhou continued Shanghai Shenhua’s all-too-predictable slide back into mid-table from their early-season burst. With injury and form concerns mounting, will Francois Gillot continue to chop and change for the visit of Yangtze Delta derby rivals Hangzhou Greentown?

Hanghai Horror Show

Despite some mitigating factors — Henan’s fearsome home reputation, the hosts’ own surprising early-season form, and the continued absence of star only star striker Paulo Henrique, Shenhua’s performance last Sunday was depressingly anemic. Losing an away game you’d be half-expected to lose is one thing; performing so poorly, getting cut open so easily, and struggling to keep the ball for more than two touches is quite another. While they belatedly improved in the final twenty minutes — a spectacular clawed save from Geng Xiaofeng and subsequently-disallowed offside goal providing impetus for Shenhua to throw caution to the wind — it was a troubling sign to see the side berating the referee for not awarding a free-kick in injury time when they really have only themselves to blame for putting in more than an hour of a truly abject show and leaving themselves too much of a mountain to climb with that late rally.

Gillot Wields The Axe

Coach Francois Gillot has confirmed that he hooked center-back Li Jianbin and left-back Bai Jiajun as punishment for their rotten first-half performances against Henan — showings for which both have apologized. Whether the bad-cop approach is what Shenhua need is up for debate — seeing a coach with the strength of his convictions and willingness to make a change is great, but it’s also important to have cohesion and consistency when building a football side. One of the reasons for Shenhua’s late-game improvement was the introduction of goalscorer Gao Di in place of Bai; Gao, however, had been initially dropped for his own poor showing against Chongqing the previous weekend. If Shenhua ditched a player following every single poor appearance, they’d be using 50-60 players over the course of a season — and an Australian-born pair should be the first in the coach’s firing line in that case…

Shapeless in Shanghai

Without wanting to resort to sporting stereotype, it’s difficult to knock the attitude and work-rate of either Tim Cahill or Avraam Papadopoulos. Shenhua — and hence owners Greenland — must come under some scrutiny for their recruitment policy, however. It’s genuinely mind-blowing that a foreign player slot would be spent on a willing runner whose second touch is inevitably a tackle, and contributes little that Zheng Kaimu or Wang Shouting couldn’t in the water-carrier role — had Shenhua signed a wide player or back-up forward in lieu of Papadopoulos, the absence of Paulo would be felt that much less keenly.

It’s the travails of Cahill which are beginning to cause murmurings amongst the Hongkou faithful, however. North Terrace News places no blame at the Australian’s feet — Cahill’s attitude and dedication on the pitch have been difficult to fault — but the fact remains that signing a marquee player for the one position in which the club were over-stocked with options — attacking central midfield — and then attempting to convert him into a makeshift striker is a very questionable strategy. Cahill has been bypassed and isolated much of the time, and has been frustratingly unable to contribute from open play as much as he, his team-mates or the supporters would undoubtedly like.

Where Next for the Tinkerman?

With Paulo likely remaining sidelined due to his indefinite-timeline achilles issue, and Zhang Lu potentially returning at right-back (Xiong Fei admittedly proved a better deputy than Wang Changqing or Li Wenbo — but that’s damning with faint praise), ch-ch-changes are likely again for Shenhua. The experiment of starting with a 4-4-2 featuring the side’s one fit striker on the bench and a midfielder and winger up front surprisingly didn’t pay too many dividends against Henan; is Gillot wedded to his attack-minded flat 4-4-2, and who will be trusted up front and in the wide positions? Will Li regain his place or could Papadopoulos partner Stoppila Sunzu in an all-foreign center-back pairing?

For what it’s worth, NTN would shake things up and go for something a little revolutionary with a 4-2-3-1: Geng; Zhang, Li, Sunzu, Bai; Wang Yun, Wang Shouting; Cao, Moreno, Lv; Gao.

Delta Derby Time

Hangzhou come into town for one of those lop-sided derbies featuring a local provincial capital side who have much more of an emotional beef with Shenhua than the big-city side do with them (see also: Jiangsu Sainty), even though a keen on-pitch rivalry and bogey-team relationship is beginning to develop. 2014 saw Shenhua not only continue their winless streak in Hangzhou, but also collapse to a horrific home defeat when expectations were riding high following a season-opening win over Shenxin which proved a false dawn. Parallels, anyone?

Keep an eye out for CSL stalwart Roda Antar anchoring the midfield, and for last season’s key man Anselmo Ramon who has netted three of Greentown’s four goals this year. Adding some fuel to the local rivalry is also Taiwan captain Chen Po-liang –a man who rarely got a look-in at Shenhua last season, and will surely have a point to prove back at Hongkou. Hangzhou, however, are making a sluggish start under new coach Philippe Troussier — the Frenchman would appear to be taking a safety-first approach, with Hangzhou being beaten narrowly by last season’s champions, narrowly beating a promoted side, and seeing two 0-0s and a 1-1 in their other fixtures.

Preview & Reality Check

Don’t come expecting entertainment — Shenhua don’t know their best side and lack fluidity or directness up front, and Hangzhou will almost certainly come to park the bus and nick one on the break or via set-pieces; a strategy which paid off royally for them last season, and which Chongqing executed well at Hongkou last time out.

Shenhua are a much less coherent and threatening side without Henrique — Gao rarely being trusted to deputize in this preferred role, and fluffing his lines royally when he did get the chance. A frustrating 1-1 draw and a continued return to mid-table reality for Shenhua, a side making the pre-season pessimism look better-founded by the week.

Shenhua in 2015 according to North Terrace News:

P 6   W 3   D 0   L 3   GF 11   GA 7   GD +4   Pts 9

Shenhua in 2015 according to the CSL table:

P 6   W 3   D 1   L 2   GF 11   GA 8   GD +3   Pts 10

Steve Crooks is ’s Shanghai Shenhua correspondent. Check his North Terrace News column each week for the latest club developments.

Steve hosts the Chinese Football Podcast, having joined the WEF team as correspondent for Shanghai Shenhua, the side he has followed since moving to Shanghai in 2010. Exiled from the Victorian town-centre idyll of Feethams along with his childhood football team, Steve spent many an (un)happy year on Hongkou's North Terrace along with the Shenhua Element Crew and Blue Devils before relocating to Sydney from where he continues to follow the Chinese game from afar.

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