Monday night sees the conclusion of Round 21 of the CSL, with Henan Jianye visiting Shanghai Shenhua and both clubs jostling for position at the top of a tight mid-table.
Victory on a Sticky Sunday Night in Chongqing
Round 20 saw Shenhua continue their recent run of form with two late strikes seeing them to a 2-0 win at Chongqing. While perhaps not quite the mythical test of mettle offered by English football’s “wet Tuesday night in Stoke”, this was nevertheless a real opportunity for Shenhua’s new-look side to prove themselves in difficult circumstances; playing their third game in a week in temperatures high enough to necessitate water-breaks, Shenhua battled hard and pulled through, Cao Yunding and Demba Ba scoring twice in the dying minutes — both goals owing as much to tenacity and strength as to the neat finishes which wrapped them up.
Return of the Gamechanger
While Demba Ba is beginning to look unplayable at times — Chongqing’s Adrian Leijer joining Beijing Guoan’s makeshift back four in being unable to cope with the focused driving runs of the Senegalese — the breakthrough in a tight game came from the surprising return from injury from a man used to changing games for Shenhua. Cao Yunding has form here; moving on from a couple of match-winning “supersub” seasons, the pint-sized playmaker must now rank as one of Shenhua’s most important players of 2015, with the side badly missing his penetration and creativity during those injury absences. Cao’s goal owed a fair amount to the composed finish and close control, but equally as much to his tenacity to fight through the backline where he looked to have no right to. If Cao can stay fit for the remaining third of the season, Shenhua will have a great chance of reaching their stated minimum goal of sixth place.
Midfield Conundrum Continues
Both Cao and captain Gio Moreno returned from the treatment table in Chongqing. With Tim Cahill this week returning from suspension, Shenhua will once again have their full complement of attacking midfield options available — the decision on who to drop or how to fit these talents into a functioning side must remain a great head-scratcher for coach Francis Gillot. Cahill remains the man in form, bagging five goals in his last six appearances, and Cao broke the deadlock last weekend to win three points for Shenhua. Moreno had a less impactful game, one of those “bad Gio” performances with the ball being haphazardly given away, and some not-quite-there-yet attempted link up play with Ba. All three of these nominal number 10s have the quality to win games for Shenhua; how all three will fit into one midfield remains difficult to picture. The rest of 2015 may even look like a straight shoot-out between Moreno and Cahill for the leading role, with Cao supporting ably from the left. With Mo Sissoko absent for this fixture — receiving precautionary treatment on the injury which saw him subbed off from the Beijing game — all three should get the chance to start in a lop-sided midfield this week.
Best of the Rest?
Henan are one of this season’s surprise packages; their headline early-season beating of champions Guangzhou Evergrande has been supported by a season of impressive form, leaving them near the top of the congested battle to sit below the runaway top 4. Their new-look front pairing of Brazilian Ivo and Filipino Javier Patino have been constantly in the goals this season, and Henan were relatively comfortable in seeing off a poor Shenhua 2-1 up in Zhengzhou in the reverse fixture. That solid form has been slowing up a little of late, however, with low-scoring draws in Henan’s past three games; admittedly one of those coming at Tianhe. Henan join Shijiazhuang as unlikely contenders for a top-six spot, but the table doesn’t really lie at this stage of the season; Jianye have impressed over the course of the year thus far and will not prove easy opponents.
Prediction & Reality Check
We’ve been here before — a side happy to concede possession and hit on the counter, while parking players behind the ball to soak up pressure. While Shenhua have traditionally struggled in this type of fixture in the past, they have a few attacking players in a rich vein of form right now, along with a more direct outlet in terms of the long ball to Demba Ba. Given the state of the Hongkou pitch — China’s best football stadium yet again being used as a concert venue this weekend, in a city hardly short of options — the route one approach may be the default here, and you’d have to back Ba to give any defence trouble right now. Henan are a streetwise side and will cause some concerns, but Shenhua should have the quality to head into the international break on a high, following a hard-fought 2-1 home win.
Shenhua in 2015 according to North Terrace News:
P 20 W 6 D 6 L 8 GF 27 GA 26 GD +1 Pts 24
Shenhua in 2015 according to the CSL table:
P 20 W 8 D 5 L 7 GF 28 GA 29 GD -1 Pts 29
Steve Crooks is WEF’s Shanghai Shenhua correspondent. Check his North Terrace News column each week for the latest club developments.