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Shanghai SIPG v Shanghai Shenhua: More than just a derby

This weekend’s Chinese Super League action sees the return of the Shanghai Derby. At last, once more, we appear to have once more settled upon a deserving rivalry for such a title—the Shanghai International Port Group against Greenland-backed Shanghai Shenhua. Both sides possess the ambition, money and, encouragingly, increasing core support to be real forces in the CSL over years ahead.

The news that this weekend’s derby is a sell-out is highly encouraging—another major landmark in a season of impressive attendance figures. For the first time last year we saw a real divide and hostility between SIPG and Shenhua on derby day and, with a full stadium in attendance, this weekend should see the fixture grow once more as an event in the football calendar.

This year’s game is intriguing in so many ways; most importantly because it will continue to confirm to us the status of both sides this year. SIPG have begun the campaign in fine style, topping the table at this early stage. Yet, despite going unbeaten, they have shown fallibility ahead of a tough run of fixtures including Shenhua, Guangzhou Evergrande and Shandong Luneng in the next month.

For Shenhua, this is a chance to re-assert themselves. Having begun the season with three wins, the blue side of Shanghai have won just one of their next five outings. Injuries have played a part in that slump, but there are also question marks over the side’s defensive structure and ability to create when Brazilian Paulo Henrique is below full fitness. In particular, the side lacks width.

Shenhua SIPG fight

Conflict: Shenhua and SIPG fans last season.

And thus we are at a point where the Shanghai derby is a game with real meaning in the CSL. If SIPG win, it is perhaps the point where rivals must take them deadly seriously as a potential title challenger. Should Shenhua win, not only will SIPG have to prove themselves once again, but the Hongkou side would also have proven they are still top four contenders.

Make no mistake, the psychological impact of this game could be huge on both sides’ seasons.

A classical South American midfield duel

Dario Conca vs. Gio Moreno. As battles of South American playmakers go, it is one of the best quality on offer anywhere in the world this season. Conca and Moreno are both classical, elegant No. 10s reminiscent of a previous era—times when every side had a No. 10 controlling their entire attacking structure. As such, it is a joy to see both on the same pitch once more this weekend.

The traditional concept of a playmaker is alive and well in China, with some of the best exponents of this role in recent years currently operating in the CSL. For students of the game and lovers of football’s romantic side, it will be a game not to miss.

Neither player has hit top gear thus far this campaign. There have been moments of real class from Moreno, with the Colombian at the centre of everything good about Francis Gillot’s Shenhua early in the campaign. At his best, he is magical to watch and capable of the extraordinary. Yet, those moments have been interspersed with games which have largely passed him by.

Conca, on the other hand, is a better and more consistent organiser. Yet the Argentine has endured fitness woes at the beginning of this campaign and is yet to get season out of second gear. The Argentine has done quite well, but as all fans of the CSL are aware there is much more to come.

The battle between the pair could be key to the outcome of this weekend’s tie, with both possessing the quality to turn what could be a close tie in an instant and neither side boasting defensive midfielders of the quality to keep them out of the game.

The best both sides can hope to achieve is to apply enough midfield pressure to limit their opponent’s impact and, indeed, a high press embedded deep into Francis Gillot’s game plan at Shenhua. For SIPG, Cai Huikang (if fit) or Yu Hai will be key.

Whichever midfield star can best influence the game will go a long way to settling the encounter.

Where the game will be won and lost

The key to the encounter looks likely to be how Shenhua deal with the high-speed counter-attacks of Shanghai SIPG—a real feature of the side’s play under Sven-Goran Eriksson thus far.

SIPG are blessed with plenty of pace in attack and, in the absence of Davi and Dario Conca at times this season, have tended to bypass midfield in an attempt to bring their forwards into play.

When those midfield options are available, their play is slower and more considered. However, balls over the top of the defence and to the wings have been a real feature of their play—as is required with a striker like Tobias Hysen who relies on intelligent movement to succeed.

Given Shenhua’s determination to press as a unit in their 4-4-2 setup this campaign, there could be space behind the defence for SIPG to capitalise upon if Gillot’s side cannot stop them playing out from the back. Space behind the full-backs and in the channels will be a real target for SIPG to exploit.

Logic would suggest that Shenhua should respond to that threat by introducing Avram Papadopoulos in defensive midfield and changing their mindset for this match, with Sunzu and Li Jianbin remaining deeper than they have to cover the SIPG threat.

SIPG were very good in their fixture against Guoan at allowing their opponents to push upfield before striking quickly on the counter-attack. Shenhua must resist that temptation at all costs.

However, the issue has been that Shenhua’s performances have been poor when utilising this three-man central midfield setup this season. Dropping Tim Cahill for such a big clash would also seem unlikely.

Paulo Henrique (r) and Tim Cahill (c) began the season well.

Paulo Henrique (r) and Tim Cahill (c) began the season well.

Shenhua, then, may have to stick to their guns and hope their midfield press can do enough to thwart their opponents. Should Cahill start alongside Paulo Henrique in attack, it is likely we will see him drop deeper into midfield than in previous games in an attempt to deny SIPG an overload in that area.

SIPG are not huge scorers, but they have weapons to damage Shenhua if they are overly aggressive in their press this weekend. They also have the best defensive record to fall back upon—in spite of major injury concerns.

Shenhua need not worry about that record. They have players who can create and score goals. The key to their hopes of success, or even a draw, at Shanghai Stadium will be denying SIPG space behind the defensive line and gaining a clean sheet.

Potential Key Man: Davi (SIPG)

Davi’s season thus far has been stop-start, with injury hindering his adaptation to life at Shanghai Stadium. In recent games, he is also yet to fully adapt to his role in a deeper position than he was accustomed earlier in his career.

With Conca in the side he will not be SIPG’s main playmaker, but he could easily find himself as the “extra” man in midfield if Shenhua are to operate with two in the centre of midfield.

The Brazilian’s influence on games can only increase from what we have seen thus far and, if he can find the form of last season this weekend, he could be highly influential in changing the course of the derby clash.

Based in Guangzhou, Christopher covers Chinese football for a range of media outlets worldwide and is Wild East Football's lead editor for news content.   His work can regularly be seen on ESPN FC, Bleacher Report and Hupu amongst other media outlets, while he has interviewed a number of leading figures in Chinese football.

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