It’s here. Hongkou this week plays host to two critical derby fixtures, with Shenhua looking to serve revenge on their high-flying cross-town junior siblings — first up is the pick of the CFA Cup quarter finals.
Last Time Out: Shenhua Tie in Tianhe
Saturday evening’s game between four-time champions Guangzhou Evergrande and Shenhua was a remarkably odd fixture; rarely can a mid-table side have traveled to the league favorites while missing their first-choice central midfield, carry a couple of players having absolute shockers, and still just about deserve the draw they got.
Evergrande didn’t look hugely impressive — lots of possession but little penetration, with Paulinho and Robinho in particular looking distinctly second-rate. The half-time introduction of Elkeson shifted the tie, with Shenhua — 1-0 up at this point from a deft Gio Moreno back-header — entering full-on park-the-bus mode right up until they had to hit back in the closing stages after conceding a couple of goals to defensive ineptitude (more on that later). Having rarely threatened from open play — a fizzing Zheng Kaimu missile excepted — it was somewhat inevitable that Shenhua’s equalizer would come from a set-piece. Cometh the hour, cometh the man, with none other than Avraam Papadopoulos stepping up to cushion a header in off the back post — one of those beautiful goals which appears to go in in slow-motion even when live, giving the few hundred intrepid away supporters plenty to savor.
Causes for Optimism: He Scores When He Wants…
Actually, Demba Ba has only scored twice for Shenhua following his mid-season move — both of those goals adding emphasis to games the Hongkou side were already winning — but his brutal treatment of CSL center-backs, smart and powerful running, and ability to link up with Shenhua’s plethora of #10s has seen the Senegalese turn around his side’s attacking threat. From a side limping along with a half-fit Paulo Henrique and out-of-position Tim Cahill, Shenhua now play with a clear outlet and genuine goal threat. Having a flair for the emphatic, surely the stage is set for Ba to further endear himself to the Hongkou faithful by re-asserting Shenhua’s place in the intra-city pecking order.
Hongkou itself may have a crucial role to play here — much as in previous seasons’ ties against the football club formerly known as Shanghai East Asia and this year’s fresh-in-the-meemory, Demba Ba inspired visit of table-topping Guoan, the proximity to the pitch of some of China’s most loyal and vocal fans can really act as a 12th man and energize Shenhua against sides who may look the favorites on paper. Come Wednesday night, Hongkou will be a bearpit — although one sadly absent of away fans due to some petty tit-for-tat exchanges from the Shenhua management. Playing ticket politics with a local rival with a little-brother complex is like arguing with an idiot. You’ll lose because they’ll drag you down to their level.
… and for Concern: Slapstick Defending
At his best, Geng Xiaofeng is a confidence ‘keeper — capable of some excellent shot-stopping, and growing into his role in commanding an area and claiming high balls. At his worst, Geng Xiaofeng is a confidence ‘keeper — allowing one or two minor ricks to develop into a series of mis-handles, wayward kicks, and indecision in claiming the ball. Unfortunately bad Geng has been out in force lately; from a Rob Green-esque how-did-that-slip-through moment to kick off the pasting in Hangzhou, to a painful-to-watch display against Hengda in which he kicked for touch more often than a rugby player and failed to claim the ball which Li Jianbin ultimately spooned back out for Guangzhou’s go-ahead goal.
Bai Jiajun had a rare off-day against Hengda — although Zheng Long put him under a lot of pressure with a standout performance, and he received little support from an anonymous-again Cao Yunding. Of more concern are the ongoing struggles of Li; while Papadopoulos has turned his season around with some solid performances, his junior partner continues to blow hot-and-cold, and the defence overall clearly lacks leadership. A forward line with the pace of Asamoah Gyan and Jean Kouassi, backed up by the creativity of Dario Conca and Wu Lei, and with the wiles of Tobias Hysen as an option, must be licking their lips when watching recent defensive lapses from Shenhua.
Prediction and Reality Check
Shanghai International Port Group are not without their own defensive frailties — if one thing is for sure, expect plenty of goal threat in this game. The visitors may also have one eye on the weekend league game, currently sitting in pole position in a title race which none of the four sides really seem to want to pull away in. Shenhua will be desperate for revenge here, and despite a mis-firing midfield — hopefully at least one of the recently-rested axis of Mo Sissoko and Wang Yun will prove fit to do the dirty work here — a raucous Hongkou atmosphere combined with the possible jitters of an inexperienced side who’ve struggled in big games before, and some big-game performances from Moreno, Cahill and Ba will see Shenhua into the semi-finals here. Shanghai Shenhua 2 – 1 Shanghai International Port Group.
Shenhua in 2015 according to North Terrace News:
P 23 W 7 D 7 L 9 GF 30 GA 31 GD -1 Pts 28
Shenhua in 2015 according to the CSL table:
P 23 W 9 D 6 L 8 GF 32 GA 35 GD -3 Pts 33
Steve Crooks is WEF’s Shanghai Shenhua correspondent. Check his North Terrace News column each week for the latest club developments.