Shanghai Shenhua kick-off the final stretch of the league season following another long international break. With relatively meaningless league games sandwiching a two-legged cup semi, can Shenhua keep their focus with a visit to a side desperate for three points in their relegation battle?
Last Time Out: Ba Does It Again
Adding further evidence to the widely-supported theory that he scores when he wants, Senegalese hitman Demba Ba netted for Shenhua in their recent friendly against the K-League’s Jeju United. It’s difficult to read too much into the friendly — both sides making a raft of substitutions for the second half — but hopefully the trip provided the club with an incentive to push for glory in the remaining rounds of this season’s FA cup, with victory ensuring more continental away-days with automatic qualification into the group stages of next season’s Champions League.
Causes for Optimism: There’s Goals In That Attack…
The introduction of Demba Ba — scoring three in seven competitive games — has not only given Shenhua a reliable presence up front, but also opened up space for the revitalized Tim Cahill and Gio Moreno to get among the goals more reliably. Cahill extended his record as Australia’s all-time top scorer by notching a couple against Tajikistan in the international break.
Perhaps the most encouraging feature of the Jeju game was an assist from Cao Yunding, however — after being perhaps Shenhua’s best player during their early-season run, the mercurial #28 had started to fade badly and go missing in a number of recent matches. Perhaps some time off, and the opportunity to reflect on his performances and lack of impact, has inspired and refreshed the Shanghainese playmaker ahead of his side’s run-in.
… and for Concern: There’s Goals in That Defence
Some recent sub-par performances from Geng Xiaofeng in nets have led to the usual predictable calls for roly-poly funtime ‘keeper Qiu Shenjiong to be reinstated. While Qiu’s local roots and dedication to the cause are undeniable — this correspondent has witnessed Qiu attending fan tournaments on his down-time — he is simply not good enough to be an option as first-choice keeper at this level. With Geng having conceded against Jeju and Qiu saving a second-half penalty however, those calls may be that little bit louder for coach Francis Gillot ahead of this game.
Worryingly the penalty was given away by Avraam Papadopoulos — Shenhua can little afford their man reborn to lapse back to his early-season struggles following some commanding recent performances. With Li Jianbin genuinely struggling, and no credible alternatives, Papadopoulos’ experience will be needed, particularly with concerns regarding the long-term fitness of holding midfielder Mo Sissoko, who didn’t make the trip to Korea. Sissoko has made a similar impact to Ba — essentially one of reinforcing the side’s spine with genuine quality and pedigree.
One further concern for Shenhua is the presence of Feng Renliang in the Guizhou ranks; despite the inevitable failure of his move to be a bench-warming wing-back for Evergrande, the Tianjin native retains the pace and directness to be a genuine threat at CSL level, and would be neither the first nor last former player to haunt Shenhua by scoring against them.
Prediction and Reality Check
Guizhou have an awful lot more to play for here than Shenhua — despite strong recent form, they remain very much in the thick of the relegation scrap, and their remaining fixtures see them take on five of the current top six, with their final-day hosting of Changchun already looking like a potential relegation-decider.
With their classy Bosnian midfield pairing, recent top-four pedigree and a couple of exciting Brazilians up top — both Santos and Hyuri are on course for double-figure goal hauls in 2015 — it’s easy to imagine Guizhou may be too good to go down; their tricky run-in and truly rotten early-season performances are an argument against that, however. Shenhua don’t typically come back strongly from international breaks — the recent horror show in Hangzhou remains fresh in the memory. A low-quality game beckons; 1-1 doing neither side too much of a favor.
Shenhua in 2015 according to North Terrace News:
P 24 W 7 D 8 L 9 GF 32 GA 33 GD -1 Pts 29
Shenhua in 2015 according to the CSL table:
P 24 W 9 D 6 L 9 GF 33 GA 37 GD -4 Pts 33
Steve Crooks is WEF’s Shanghai Shenhua correspondent. Check his North Terrace News column each week for the latest club developments.