As the dust – and torrential rain – settles following the latest instalment in the increasingly rancorous Shanghai derby; both SIPG and Shenhua fans step bleary-eyed into the cold light of day, hangovers all but dissipated into the humid late-Summer’s air of China’s most-populous city.
While both camps will have differing reasons for their self-imposed headaches; a glance at the current CSL standings will no doubt leave one half of the city feeling the Berocca-infused upswing of positivity, while the other may well be at that point of pulling the blinds back down, rolling over, and promising to never indulge themselves again.
Yes, Sunday evening brought us the heavily anticipated third Shanghai derby of the season, and despite recording the lowest goal tally of the previous two meetings between these two sides in 2015, the action and drama was far from being in short supply. The two sides had met previously in the midweek FA Cup quarter final tie – a high-octane, end to end affair in which defending seemed almost trivial, and Wu Lei and Demba Ba’s excellently taken goals were overshadowed by a Gio Moreno wonder goal of exquisite technique and vision – which after going blow for blow for 90 minutes was settled in Shenhua’s favour via a penalty shootout.
The disappointment on SIPG’s end, coupled with the newfound belief in a side which had also held champions Guangzhou Evergrande to a 2-2 draw at Tianhe prior to their cup victory, certainly showed in the opening exchanges at Hongkou Stadium. The home side controlled possession, and threatened to break the deadlock from a number of set pieces which were poorly defended by SIPG. While Gio Moreno was allowed to pull strings going forward, SIPG created little themselves and looked increasingly abject as the first half progressed.
Thus when Cai Huikang was penalised for thrusting an arm towards the ball inside his own penalty area, and up stepped Tim Cahill to dispatch the resulting spot kick, the red section of the capacity crowd inside Hongkou began to fear their winless run at the home of their hosts would continue. While the visitors’ performance did little by way of improving throughout the remainder of the first half; slapstick individual defensive errors limiting any meaningful opportunity to get back into the game, SIPG’s one clear cut chance was spurned by the unusually error-prone Davi.
Nonetheless, whatever was said by manager Sven-Göran Eriksson at half time must have resounded inside the dressing room, as the reds seized control of matters and clawed their way back into contention. For starters, centre back, Yang Boyu somehow appeared to have gained an extra yard of pace, as well as a newfound resolve to keep Gio Moreno firmly inside his pocket, as he turned out his most impressive 45 minutes in an SIPG shirt to date, cutting off supply lines from the talismanic Columbian.
At the other end, meanwhile, Tobias Hysén’s introduction in place of Davi – switching with Lv Wenjun to take up the right wing position – immediately brought a more incisive and direct edge to his side’s play. Nevertheless, it was SIPG’s other star striker, Asamoah Gyan, who finally put his side level in the 65th minute, after latching on to Darío Conca’s cross and finding half a yard of space between 3 stumbling Shenhua defenders, before slotting home past the outstretched Geng Xiaofeng.
With SIPG now back in the game and firmly on top of proceedings, it did not take long for the reds to find the net yet again. Conca’s low-flying free kick was met on the turn by the outside of SIPG defender, Shi Ke’s boot, before taking a decisive deflection off the forearm of Shenhua’s Mohammed Sissoko and once more past the outstretched Geng.
Gyan should have added to his haul with 10 minutes remaining, as Shenhua this time took on the role of comedy defenders. The Ghanaian captain received the ball right on the edge of the Shenhua box, and with Bai Jiajun and Li Jianbin both equally desperate to block the striker’s attempt on goal, the two conspired only to wipe each other out, and allow Gyan to fire a shot into the foot of the Shenhua goalkeeper. Though SIPG hearts were in mouths during an injury time burst down the wing once more from Moreno, fortunately, his cross could not be met by Gao Di, and the visitors ended the game with their first win at the home of their city rivals.
Whereas the game itself should always be the talking point of any footballing occasion, in reality that is rarely the case; particularly so in a city derby, and especially so in the CSL. Eagle eyed cameramen picked out a number of visibly disgruntled Shenhua fans waving money throughout the game – understood to be in relation to the circumstances of key player Demba Ba’s suspension. While there are undoubtedly questions over the timing of the ban, the fact of the matter is that it was justified, and had the referee made the correct decision in the game against Guangzhou, in which Ba’s best efforts to rearrange Feng Xioeting’s face received only a yellow card, Ba would have seen red and be forced to watch from the sidelines regardless.
In any case, it seems that the increasing levels of bitterness felt by Shenhua fans towards their cross town neighbours has no signs of ceasing. Indeed, local social media prior to the game was filled with examples of idiotic fans burning or defecating on SIPG shirts. If such behaviour and the level of vitriol towards SIPG fans suggests anything, it’s that there is perhaps a reluctant acknowledgement that Shenhua have been firmly overtaken as the region’s powerhouse.
While accusations of jumping ship will inevitably be flung in the direction of a number of SIPG fans, the truth is, this is a situation unlike any contemporary European club rivalry, whereby a century of mutual enmity fuels the turf warfare that exists there. Admittedly, Shenhua have as proud history of challenging for titles and being one of the leading lights in Chinese football.
However, when you take into consideration the Chinese football league’s chequered recent history, which caused fans to turn away from the sport in their droves, Shenhua’s own recent history of being run into the ground by one man intent on alienating the entire fanbase, and the club’s own identity having been altered and devalued (see last year’s rebranding as case in point), there comes a point when fans have a right to say enough is enough. Whatever the reason those fans turned away from Shenhua, does that necessarily mean they have given up their right to follow a Shanghainese club (and it is most certainly Shanghainese), not to mention one which has a realistic shot at competing for championships?
With the heart of this SIPG team comprised of locally nurtured players, the majority of which having been reared in Chongming Island at the Genbao Football Base, the DNA of this current squad is certainly more representative of its birthplace than its Hongkou-based counterpart. In fact, a just looking at the two club’s current first team squads attests to this, with SIPG’s current first team containing no less than 7 first team members all born in Shanghai (while Wu Lei made the short trip from Nanjing to Shanghai to join Xu Genbao’s academy). On the other hand, even Shenhua’s Shanghainese heroes, Bai Jiajun and Cao Yunding, are themselves products of the Genbao Football Base.
Admittedly the accusations that the SIPG group have bought their way to the title are hard to ignore, with the multi-million pound signings of Darío Conca and Asamoah Gyan exemplifying the club’s new found financial clout. It is difficult to argue that the side would still be sitting atop the CSL with just 6 games remaining had the change at the top not come to be. However, many Shenhua fans seemingly gloss over the fact that this is still a team which narrowly missed out on an ACL spot last year, playing positive, attacking football, at a time when €1.25million man Tobias Hysén was their record signing. This is before mentioning the equally eye watering sums of money spent on the likes of Demba Ba, Mohammed Sissoko and Tim Cahill in the northern side of the city this year.
So essentially my point is this; don’t begrudge your neighbours success just because your own affairs are not in order. While it would be difficult to admit, would an SIPG title win really be worse than a situation whereby traditional rivals Beijing Guoan took first place? More than just a footballing rivalry – the China derby draws on historical, geographical and cultural influences to produce a truly scintillating affair. And would any genuine fans of the game freely admit to backing Guangzhou Evergrande to a fifth consecutive title? My suspicion would be no. Then again, there really is nothing like mindless tribalism to prevent the free flow of logic.