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North Terrace News: Shenhua in Shijiazhuang for semi-final tune-up

Shanghai Shenhua head north with a couple of selection headaches for both this game and the midweek CFA Cup semi final — expect as much scrutiny of Francis Gillot’s teamsheet as the result itself.

Fairytale Ending?

Sunday evening saw Shandong Luneng emerge victorious from Hongkou and stay alive in the title race having shown not just one, but two hallmarks of a title-chasing side — fairly comprehensively outplaying their hosts in the first 45 minutes, Shandong then managed to win the second half despite playing very poorly indeed. Junior Urso’s late, late goal had a feeling of inevitability towards it — Shenhua had created and wasted no end of openings during the second half, and the sucker punch was exactly what they deserved in that regard.

Firing Blanks

In a side shorn of its key domestic players due to injury (Bai Jiajun, Zhang Lu), suspension (Wang Yun), lack of form (Cao Yunding) or a baffling refusal of the coach to select them (Gao Di), Shenhua’s play was genuinely lop-sided against Shandong. Demba Ba, Mo Sissoko, Gio Moreno and Tim Cahill are players of great technique and pedigree, but four men are never going to beat eleven on their own — Shenhua’s breaks frequently broke down with a poor final ball, perhaps due to the strain on their international contingent of trying to do everything on their own.

Shandong represented the second straight game where Shenhua wasted good opportunities to create chances or score goals; they got away with a 2-1 win at a poor Guizhou side, but could really do with showing some more clinical delivery and finishing ahead of Wednesday’s big cup game back at Hongkou.

The Case for the Defence

Due to the somewhat bizarre rules limiting top-flight sides to the lower foreign-player quota of lower-league rivals in the CFA cup, Shenhua have begun preparing for life without Avraam Papadopoulos in their double-header with Beijing BG. Shenhua’s starting back four against title-chasing Shandong featured only one regular first-choice — and Li Jianbin had been in questionable form for a couple of months. While not pretty, the defensive performance was fairly effective — stand-in full-backs Fan Linjiang and Xiong Fei have played a fair bit of football over the past two years, but perhaps the performance of the night came from Tao Jin, the #30 making his eighth appearance in six years and putting in a solid performance at center-back. With Bai Jiajun remaining out injured, Fan will keep his place against Shijiazhuang. It’s likely that Tao will be partnered by Xiong in the center of defence, with fit-again Zhang Lu returning to his right-back slot; Li Jianbin misses this one due to suspension, along with Wang Shouting who had a shocking game against Shandong and was lucky not to be sent off.

Building from the Back

The absence of Bai, Wang Yun and Zhang was noticeable more in Shenhua’s forward play than their tenacious defending against Shandong; while the stand-ins by and large kept their shape and concentration well, a lack of quality or confidence on the ball was painfully obvious, and Shenhua struggled to get the ball forwards or support the midfield. The return of Wang Yun can’t come soon enough — for this correspondent he remains in the mix for Shenhua’s player of the season, and there’s a case to be made that Wang and Sissoko as a double-pivot form the best engine room in the CSL. When either of those two is missing, Shenhua lose their shape and threat almost as badly as in the absence of Demba Ba.

Four into Three

With something of an injury and suspension crisis hitting Shenhua’s thin squad, Gillot may not be able to rotate as much as a manager may wish to in a meaningless dead-rubber league game ahead of a cup semi-final midweek. Presumably however one of Gio Moreno and Tim Cahill will be rested — with the man starting in Shijiazhuang likely to be watching the semi from the Hongkou sidelines. Demba Ba and Mo Sissoko are surely nailed-on starters if fit — the team has no shape without them — so the battle may well be between the two #10s for the third foreigner spot. NTN would go for Moreno — the consumate big-game player — although Cahill remains one of the most predatory goal threats in the CSL, and put in one of his better all-round performances for some time against Shandong.

Top-Six Dead Rubber

Rarely can 6th versus 7th have been such an afterthought; the top four are long gone out of sight, and Shenhua have bigger fish to fry with the CFA Cup. Shijiazhuang’s remarkably comfortable first CSL season sees them effectively able to put their feet up already — impressive for a side who needed a late, controversial penalty to scrape into the second promotion spot on the last day of last season’s China League One. Perhaps this is for the best; a defensive side in nature, Shijiazhuang haven’t won since an August first victory at Changchun and have some tricky fixtures remaining — Shenhua, Shanghai International Port Group and Shandong are tricky fixtures indeed, so don’t be surprised to see Yongchang slip back a little in the crowded mid-table.

Prediction and Reality Check

This could be one for the die-hards only; the home side have surpassed expectations and are cruising into holiday mode, and the visitors have one and a half eyes on a midweek cup tie. Shijiazhuang will want to sign off in front of their home supporters in style in their remaining two games, and Mao Jianqing has a knack of putting in performances against his old side. Shenhua will likely still have enough quality to trouble their hosts, and a number of players may be playing for their place in the cup semi with uncertainty surrounding the defensive positions — 1-1 would suit both sides reasonably well without delighting either.

This is, of course, the least important Shanghai fixture this weekend – Shanghai International Port Group meet Shandong in a win-or-bust match to stay on the coat-tails of Guangzhou Evergrande at the top, and come Sunday Shenxin will either take Beijing out of the title race with their now-traditional turtle-slaying, or confirm a relegation which has been about three years coming.

Shenhua in 2015 according to North Terrace News:

P 26 W 7 D 9 L 10 GF 34 GA 36 GD -2 Pts 30

Shenhua in 2015 according to the CSL table:

P 26 W 10 D 6 L 10 GF 36 GA 40 GD -6 Pts 36

Steve Crooks is WEF’s Shanghai Shenhua correspondent. Check his North Terrace News column each week for the latest club developments.

Steve hosts the Chinese Football Podcast, having joined the WEF team as correspondent for Shanghai Shenhua, the side he has followed since moving to Shanghai in 2010. Exiled from the Victorian town-centre idyll of Feethams along with his childhood football team, Steve can now be found enjoying/enduring matchdays on Hongkou's North Terrace along with the rest of the infamous Shenhua Element Crew.

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