Wednesday evening sees Beijing Guoan return to Hongkou, a ground where they finally broke a two decade-old hoodoo in crushing form last year. Will a listless Shenhua be able to raise themselves and redeem some pride?
Last Time Out
In honor of Shenhua’s increasing Francophone contingent, the best way to sum up Saturday evening’s trip to Tianjin is to say plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose. In keeping with away performances of the past few seasons, Shenhua struggled to assert themselves against a side they should have the pedigree to see off; there was much huffing and puffing, a few moments of quality, and the inevitable conceding of an equalizer as the side in blue invited pressure onto themselves.
An isolated big-name international forward with little or no service, little real width, players running into blind alleys, no on-pitch or off-field leadership, and substitutions being made too little too late. Shenhua fans could be forgiven for thinking they’re stuck in a timewarp. Tim Cahill’s bullet header put the side ahead early in the second half, following some good work from Lv Zheng, only for a Hernan Barcos led Tianjin side to fight back, with the ‘pirate’ somewhat inevitably being the man to equalize against his former side even in spite of half the Shenhua rearguard stumbling over one another on the goal-line as they struggled to get the ball clear.
Causes for Optimism…
At least the mid-season transfer business should have strengthened Shenhua’s spine. Mo Sissoko offers a muscular, technically-savvy midfield shield and recycles the ball neatly — and in the stakes of injury-prone forwards signed from the Turkish league, Demba Ba is better suited to the lone frontman role than Paulo Henrique. In his few touches in his debut against Tianjin, Ba rattled the bar with a crashing header in the first half and got a couple of threatening snapshots away to worry the home defence. Tim Cahill has started scoring goals at a rate commensurate with his pedigree and ability — his finish against Tianjin was truly majestic. And, with Cao Yunding remaining injured, the much-maligned right flank finally stepped up to the plate on Saturday — Xiong Fei put in his best performance in a Shenhua shirt, including curling a beautiful cross in for Ba to smash onto the woodwork, and Lv Zheng was probably Shenhua’s man of the match — consistently beating defenders, and neatly setting up Cahill’s headed opener.
… and for Concern
Shenhua are likely to remain without their two most creative players for this fixture, with captain Gio Moreno and playmaker Cao Yunding both remaining on the treatment table. With the Hongkou hoodoo monkey off their backs following last season’s gut-wrenching 3-0 win, Guoan will for the first time be approaching an away China Derby with expectation and confidence rather than nerves or apprehension — the capital side’s own sterling form and league-topping position in stark contrast to Shenhua’s abject failings against top-four sides this season (played 4, scored 0, conceded 12, been involved in competitive football matches for a combined total of around 25 minutes). The Hongkou crowd will be loud and out for revenge — both for last season’s surrender and this year’s rotten big-game performances, but it remains to be seen whether coach Francis Gillot is able to raise his side for a big match.
Oh, and Avraam Papadopoulos coming up against an in-form Guoan attack should be enough to give anyone goosebumps.
Prediction and Reality Check
Defeat should be unthinkable, let alone an abject surrender and defeat — but the pattern of big-games has been clear and one-sided ever since last season’s cup semi-final against Sainty. Customary beatings against Evergrande and at Gongti have been followed up by a truly horrifying collapse down at Shanghai Stadium — when’s the last time Shenhua played well in a big game? It’s not so long since they were known as China’s ‘comeback kings’, ‘kings of the derby’, and experts in smash-and-grab victories against theoretically superior opponents, but those days of team spirit, never-say-die attitude and battle-hardened club legends feel a long way away.
There’s every chance Guoan will walk this one — since that’s a thought no Shenhua fan wants to countenance, let’s instead look out for a 2-3 scoreline, with a spirited but ultimately futile Shenhua fightback following yet another early-game surrender.
Shenhua in 2015 according to North Terrace News:
P 18 W 6 D 5 L 7 GF 23 GA 21 GD +2 Pts 23
Shenhua in 2015 according to the CSL table:
P 18 W 6 D 5 L 7 GF 23 GA 28 GD -5 Pts 23
Steve Crooks is WEF’s Shanghai Shenhua correspondent. Check his North Terrace News column each week for the latest club developments.