Following a welcome return to form against Hangzhou Greentown, third-placed Shanghai Shenhua gear up for fixtures against the top two. In any other month, taking on the three-time reigning champions would be the big game to look forward to; all eyes are already on the following round’s tussle for local supremacy however.
Big Guns Fire
Shenhua returned to form with their two marquee players both getting on the scoresheet to overcome Hangzhou last weekend — captain Gio Moreno breaking the deadlock with a frankly ridiculous goal before half-time; if volleyed goals from corners are already in the top drawer, then those which go in via the woodwork must rank even higher — and those volleyed with an acrobatic overhead kick which the #10 has eyed up all the way from the dead-ball leaving the corner-taker’s foot are topper than the toppermost top, top drawer in a Redknapp’s footballing vocabulary.
If Tim Cahill’s goal was a little more prosaic, there was no less emotion or appreciation expressed in Hongkou. Following center-back Bassem Boulaâbi’s amateurish handball, Cahill stepped up in front of an expectant North Terrace — thousands of Shenhua fans united in their desire to see Timmy break his duck — and a firmly-struck shot crept in despite a hand from Gu Cao. The moment was perfect, Cahill even eschewing his customary celebration to mount the hoardings and bask in the crowd’s joy, only for the referee to call encroachment. Stepping up a second time, Cahill’s experience showed through as he sent the keeper one way and the ball firmly the other — and then the moment Hongkou had waited for, the north-west corner flag taking the first of potentially many shadow-boxing beatings.
Let The Good Times Roll
Shenhua will not win the league this year; their lop-sided squad will struggle to keep up a challenge for ACL places over the full season. One thing they certainly will be is entertaining, however — with many attack-minded players and a coach in Francis Gillot who is happy to trust his forward-minded 4-4-2, Shenhua have the capacity to turn it on and create plenty of opportunities. Even if the final ball was often lacking, even if Lv Zheng inexcusably went for power when placement left him an open goal to kill the game before half-time, Hangzhou barely had a kick for much of the game — Stoppila Sunzu quite possibly walking out of Hongkou with Davy Claude Angan still wedged firmly in his pocket. At times they can frustrate, at times they can look short of ideas or flat-out disinterested, but when they turn it on there are few more fun or creative teams to watch. Shenhua are a side in their captain’s image; for all the frustrating Hollywood passes into touch, for all the defensive disinterest, Gio Moreno is capable of doing things nobody in this league can match — and following a couple of increasingly-attritional season-long battles for survival, the blues once again have the ability to entertain.
Even Paulo Henrique may have been surprised to see his name in the starting line-up against Greentown; not expected back before the Shanghai derby, the Brazilian looked some way off match-fit and even pulled up lame a couple of times in the first half. Henrique’s movement and touch gradually helped Shenhua open the game up, however. Henrique was drafted in to replace the injured Cao Yunding — Gao Di filling in on the left-wing (what’s more ineffective than a striker on the wing? A one-footed striker on the wrong wing) — with Zhang Lu and Deng Zhouxiang also remaining on the treatment table. Will Paulo will be fit to face Hengda come Friday or saved for the following weekend’s even bigger game?
Evergrande’s CSL form has been a little patch by their own imperious standards, with the Cantonese side trailing the rocket-fuelled start of acronym football club. They remarkably needed an injury-time equalizer from big-money signing and Brazilian international Ricardo Goulart to snatch a 3-3 draw at home to Jiangsu Sainty, in a game marred by comical defending. While losing a coach of the pedigree of Marcelo Lippi leaves a big void to fill, it’s surprising that defensive solidarity hasn’t necessarily been a hallmark this year, given than Lippi’s replacement is the only defender to win the Ballon d’Or this millenium — perhaps his ongoing legal situation back in Italy is troubling the work of Fabio Cannavaro.
Form is Temporary…
At the same time as their domestic teething troubles, Evergrand have sewn up qualification from a testing ACL group with a minimum of fuss, and boast a side of top-pedigree domestic internationals and big-money Brazilian imports; Elkeson, Goulart and Rene Junior might not look out of place in continental competition elsewhere in the world. Shenhua have also failed to beat Evergrande in the league since… well, since Evergrande became Evergrande. All four Honkgou encounters since 2011 have gone the Cantonese side’s way, although the last two seasons have been somewhat competitive — Shenhua expending all their energy in a first-half blitz which didn’t return any goals in 2013 only to fall away badly in the second, and then suffering a galling last-minute defeat last year after bossing much of the game.
Preview & Reality Check
While the May-Day holiday crowd may come to Hongkou with a combination of hope and expectation, this game is being viewed strongly through the prism of the upcoming Shanghai Derby. Beat Evergrande, and the city derby just got even bigger — victory would vault Shenhua into second place, behind only their newly-monikered noisy neighbors.
It’s easy to see the game going the way of last season, however — expect some bold attacking and chances created by Shenhua, only for Evergrande’s superior class, experience and nous to ultimately come through — a 1-2 home defeat is on the cards, and hopefully a clean bill of health and some promising interplay to go into the derby weekend.
Shenhua in 2015 according to North Terrace News:
P 7 W 3 D 1 L 3 GF 12 GA 8 GD +4 Pts 10
Shenhua in 2015 according to the CSL table:
P 7 W 4 D 1 L 2 GF 13 GA 8 GD +5 Pts 13
Steve Crooks is ’s Shanghai Shenhua correspondent. Check his North Terrace News column each week for the latest club developments.