This Saturday Shanghai will be subjected to its first (real) derby of the season, as the consistently inconsistent Shanghai Shenhua make the cross-city trip to Shanghai Stadium. While the form book would have some anticipating a comfortable home win for the red half of the city, only the most defiantly steadfast of SIPG fans would assume victory is a given.
NORTH TERRACE PREVIEW (by Steve Crooks)
The last two games sum up Shenhua in a microcosm – either very good, or very bad, with little in between. You could argue cynically that playing against a side with a functioning midfield pushes Shenhua into the “very bad” category. Talismanic captain Gio Moreno continues to embody his side – capable of the sublime, but also patently unsuited to daily life in a 4-4-2.
Worryingly, Shenhua have shown signs of losing their big-game mentality of late – the heady days of improbable fightbacks and the Guoan “Hongkou Hoodoo” feel a long time ago, although their unbeaten record against Shenxin and SIPG in city derbies stands.
On paper this is a no-brainer – SIPG are the side in form, and have added experience and class to a talented but fragile squad; not least through big-money signings Conca and Eriksen who know what it takes to succeed in the CSL. And yet football is not played on paper; the form book goes out the window in derby games, and other such classics.
I have a feeling about this game – that against all odds, Shenhua will trump their newly-monied, newly-acronymed noisy neigbours. It’s all about mentality – the club formerly known as East Asia should really have beaten a fading Shenhua on paper in the last couple of seasons, and yet conspired to lose their nerve against their more established rivals. Indeed, last season’s calamitous end-of-season run which left the side outside of ACL qualification highlights doubts about their nerve when the chips are truly down. And SIPG are possibly running scared again; a side so paralyzed by fear of being outnumbered in their own stadium once again (cf. Shanghai Derby 2013, 2014 editions) that they have limited Shenhua fans to a frankly ridiculous 2,000 tickets for an 80,000 seater stadium.
It could, and perhaps should, get messy for a Shenhua side struggling for balance and consistency, but I have a sneaking feeling that their big-game players and their neighbours’ nervousness will see the blues leaving Xujiahui unbowed: 0-1.
Although yet to taste victory against their historic neighbours, SIPG are this year more well-equipped to do so than ever. However, questions over their ability to perform under the weight of expectation, combined with Shenhua’s ability to pull off the occasional unexpected upset (see last year’s win over Shandong, coming off the back of a four-game winless streak, or this year’s unforeseen 1-0 victory at Guangzhou R&F), means that this tie will be far from an easy call.
For proof of SIPG’s vulnerability when thrust under the spotlight, observers need look no further than last Sunday’s frustratingly sterile 1-1 draw away at Hangzhou Greentown. Despite missing several key defensive first teamers, it was the reds’ struggles in breaking down a packed 5-man Hangzhou defence that galled most.
In a game which should have passed with the minimum of fuss given the recent form and relative squad strengths of both sides, SIPG managed to fall behind to an Imed Louati goal, before Ivorian winger Jean Everard Kouassi rescued a point in dramatic fashion with just 8 minutes remaining.
Arguably the most crucial of those defensive absentees was Shanghai’s midfield general, Cai Huikang, who had frustratingly sustained an injury in training in the week preceding the Hangzhou clash. Without Cai’s tireless work rate and insatiable appetite for a reducer in the middle of the park, SIPG’s natural rhythm was significantly disrupted.
Yu Hai was once more drafted in alongside Davi to form the side’s central midfield axis, however this served only to stifle the attacking and creative talents of the pair, whilst accentuating the desperate need for defensive midfield cover – an issue which has plagued this team for well over a year (and which was documented on an almost weekly basis in these pages last season). It seems the penny may have finally dropped, however, with head coach Sven-Goran Eriksson this week confirming that the club would be looking to bring in cover in this position during the summer transfer window.
Nonetheless, for now, SIPG have no choice but to make do with square pegs desperately being hammered into the sizeable round hole vacated by Cai. In his absence, the pairing of Davi and Yu struggled to exert any real influence on the game itself. Davi in particular certainly did not enjoy his best game in a red shirt, and was brought off for eventual goalscorer, Jean Everard Kouassi with 10 minutes remaining. In all honesty, this change probably should have happened about 10 minutes earlier, as Kouassi – free from the defensive responsibilities which had shackled Davi – immediately gave the team more drive and directness to their play, and grabbing the equaliser minutes later.
Cali will face a late fitness test this week which will rule him either in or out of this week’s city derby; SIPG fans will undoubtedly be crossing every available digit to the point of serial rheumatism that he is able to take part.
Another key defensive figure to miss out last week was Sun Xiang – the veteran left back having sustained an injury himself in the previous outing against Henan. Eriksson had in fact declared prior to the Hangzhou game that he was back in training, but the club had decided to rest the club captain against Hangzhou, in preparation for this week’s derby.
With SIPG’s defensive merry-go-round continuing its inexorable spin, Shanghai Shenhua – and in particular their pair of number 10s – Gio Moreno and Tim Cahill – must be relishing the potential space afforded to them by an unfamiliar and somewhat unsettled defence.
Sun Xiang’s presence should bring a calming factor to the back four, but it is the absence of someone in the mould of Cai that could cost the side most, with both playmakers capable of striking a ball from distance, as well as playing others in around the edge of the box, if they are allowed room to do so.
In what promises to be a rather open, fiery affair, expect to see both goals and cards making more than one appearance. SIPG’s allocation of tickets – officially designating just 2000 (of a total of around 46,000) tickets to their visitors – has been widely criticised, not least because a large proportion of these have been given away to employees of the SIPG group. However, one would expect a large majority of these tickets to be resold in the run up to the derby, and it would be remarkable if anything less than triple that amount of Shenhua fans descended on Shanghai Stadium come Saturday evening.
Despite the sense that this will be an open, attacking game, it is hard to see this being decided by more than a single goal. With SIPG having never beaten their neighbours from Hongkou, and in a season where many expect them to be challenging for the title, the desire to put one over on their blue ‘brothers’ is greater than ever. Having lost both home and away fixtures in 2013, SIPG picked up 1-1 draws in both of last season’s derbies.
The stage is therefore set for them to continue this progression and show how far they have come by recording their first ever victory over Shenhua this Saturday. Whilst I find it hard to see SIPG being turned over on their own turf (having only tasted defeat 8 times at home in over 2 years – only 2 of which came in 2014), a draw does seem the most probable outcome. Nonetheless, unsurprisingly, your SIPG correspondent – faithful as ever – is calling this one as a narrow, but historic, first Shanghai derby win for Shanghai’s rising powerhouse. 2-1.