Fresh from a high-drama drubbing to depose their oldest rivals of top spot in the table, Shenhua can bask in the headlines for the right reason for a welcome change as they prepare for a Sunday evening trip to Chongqing Lifan.
Wednesday evening will live long in the memories of the blue three-quarters of Shanghai. Context matters in football, and the context was near-perfect here — an opportunity to avenge their first loss of the season in the reverse fixture at Gongti, the first chance to strike back after losing their unbeaten Hongkou record in this rivalry last season, a swaggering Beijing Guoan rolling into town top of the CSL table, with Shenhua again mired in mid-table after a mid-season crisis. An electric atmosphere with a near sell-out crowd; a goalscoring home debut for an international star striker; a fifth goal in sixth games as the pre-season marquee signing hits his straps; a commanding performance from two heavily-criticized center-halves; a crowd so loud and delirious that many of them missed a goal due to the famous Poznan celebration, and didn’t even care. Any one or two of these would make for a night to remember — all of them in combination, in a barnstorming victory in China’s classico, make this a highlight which will ring out in the city long beyond the dust settling on the 2015 season.
If this was vindication for Shenhua — and it was, the Ba and Sissoko mid-season singings proving their pedigree with dominant performances, the Cahill experiment coming to fruition, Avraam Papadopoulos putting in his best performance in a blue shirt and looking every inch the experienced international center-half the club thought they had signed, and pre-season signings Wang Yun, Li Jianbin, Lv Zheng and Zhang Lu all contributing — then it was vindication for Shenhua’s long-suffering supporters too. Demba Ba wrestling his way past a patched-up Guoan rearguard, the capital side’s aging defence stripped to the bare bones. Three goals scored at the perfect time to take the game away from the visitors and pile on the misery. That oh-so-rare opportunity to turn to the fan next to you in the stand and share a reassuring nod that yes, we’ve won this one, with what could have been a nerve-jangling quarter-hour to go. A confident, clinical, solid performance against in-form top-of-the table opposition; a team coming together when the game really mattered. This was a return to the identity which it seemed Shenhua had lost along with their name-change drama; following a series of ill-tempered or anemic surrenders in big games this season and last, Wednesday night represented the return of a long-lost Shanghai Shenhua which vindicates the belief and passion from the Hongkou terraces. Welcome back, Shenhua — you’ve been missed with a passion which never was extinguished.
The Captain Conundrum
Remarkably, Shenhua’s recent upswing in form — unbeaten in five, with three wins — has come in the continued absence of their captain and best player. Gio Moreno has resumed training following his injury against Jiangsu Sainty, and is in contention for a return to the side this weekend. The challenge facing Francis Gillot is who to leave out — Moreno is the most talented individual in the CSL, let alone Shenhua’s squad, but the side is looking settled and more balanced in his absence. It all comes back down to the concerns raised pre-season — Gio and Cahill into one balanced football side simply doesn’t go. With rumors circulating that Moreno fancies a return to his native South America at the end of the season, could this be the beginning of the once-unthinkable end? Moreno has played a key part in keeping Shenhua out of trouble as the squad has been trimmed back all around him, a great scorer of great goals, and one of the few positives to cling to in recent seasons. That old football maxim about never changing a winning side may be keeping Shenhua’s coach up at night ahead of Sunday’s game.
It’s hoped that Mo Sissoko will be fit to return following his withdrawal during the second half of the China Derby. Playmaker Cao Yunding — possibly Shenhua’s player of the first half of the season, and another key man absent for the recent winning run — is thought to remain out of the reckoning for this weekend’s fixture. As the transfer window slams shut on July 16th, Shenhua have confirmed that Stoppila Sunzu (yet to find another club) and top scorer Paulo Henrique (loaned to Liaoning Whowin for the second half of the season) have been de-registered in favor of new arrivals Sissoko and Ba.
Prediction & Reality Check
Trips to newly-promoted sides tend to involve drama on and off the pitch for Shenhua; sizeable away followings follow the side on their first trip to pastures new, and an improbably Dady-led comeback from 0-3 to 3-3 in a trip to Wuhan Zall remains an archetype of this kind of fixture. Chongqing are continuing to outperform expectations, however — they nearly didn’t make the registration requirements for top-flight football at all, and their squad was fancied to return straight to League One in any case — but made a strong start to life in the top flight, and this mid-week recovered from a mid-season blip of their own (getting hammered by Beijing, Evergrande, and Shandong in short succession sound familiar?) with a handy win at Hangzhou Greentown. Lifan looked well-drilled and dangerous on the counter in an early-season 2-2 draw at Hongkou; don’t bet against two tired sides showing a bit of slackness here, with another 2-2 on the cards.
The next couple of games will be a test of this revamped Shenhua’s true credentials and professionalism — is the China Derby win a statement of intent for next season and beyond, or a one-off big game performance?
Shenhua in 2015 according to North Terrace News:
P 19 W 6 D 5 L 8 GF 25 GA 24 GD +1 Pts 23
Shenhua in 2015 according to the CSL table:
P 19 W 7 D 5 L 7 GF 26 GA 29 GD -3 Pts 26
Steve Crooks is WEF’s Shanghai Shenhua correspondent. Check his North Terrace News column each week for the latest club developments.