So here we are again; Shanghai Shenhua kick off the two-legged CFA Cup semi-finals with a home tie. Will promotion-chasing Beijing BG prove an easy route into the final, or a potential banana skin?
Stumbling in Shijiazhuang
Shenhua’s poor recent form in front of goal continued with another misfiring performance up in Shijiazhuang last weekend. Li Jianbin’s suspension meant the return of Avraam Papadopoulos to shore up the defence; unfortunately it was the early-season Papa who stumbled onto the pitch rather than the late-season’s reformed stopper. Shenhua’s midfield was all too easily over-run — particularly considering that Sissoko and Wang Yun are their strongest combination there — leaving the defence a lot of work to do in the first half. With the half-hour approaching, Mario Rondon made a fool of Shenhua’s Greek-Australian center-back and crossed for Jacob Mulenga to slide home the opener. Worse was to come — with the away side looking to get back in the game, captain Gio Moreno was denied a clear-cut penalty when stumbling over an outstretched defender’s leg; to add insult to injury, the referee booked Moreno for diving, and minutes after the re-start awarded Shijiazhuang an equally soft spot-kick of their own to put the match beyond Shenhua. The sight of Jiang Kun waddling into the fray from the bench to replace Moreno shortly after the hour mark summed up the away side’s ambition at that point.
Will The Real Beijing BG Please Stand Up?
The visitors in this cup semi-final are having an identity crisis well beyond their name and ownership change. The side formerly known as Beijing Baxy are just about holding together a promotion challenge, despite some truly bipolar recent results — two heavy home wins have been sandwiched by 3-0 and 5-0 thumpings away from home. A couple of familiar figures return to Hongkou here; Colombian forward Carmelo Valencia has terrorized the Shenhua defence previously while playing top-flight football in Tianjin, and journeyman hair-dyer Wang Changqing returns. The remarkable distinction of having played for Beijing Guo’an and been truly, suspiciously rotten in Shenhua colors mean that Wang is guaranteed a warm reception at Hongkou on Wednesday night.
Haven’t We Been Here Before?
A league campaign drifting into mid-table meaninglessness, with league form tailing off ahead of the big cup game. A manager whose competence divides the fanbase. A Hongkou first leg to kick off the October holidays with the tantalizing prospect of a winnable final (well, no Hengda or Guoan at least) and Champions League football.
This time last year Shenhua were preparing to take on Jiangsu Sainty in the semis, and the horror-show first half ultimately played a large part in Sergio Batista’s downfall as Shenhua coach. The bin-lorry aficionado saw his side put in one of the most limp, spineless performances many in the stadium has ever witnessed; played off the park, 2-0 down and out of the semi finals with just 45 minutes of the two-legged tie gone. The blue three-quarters of Shanghai are allowed to feel the goosebumps and trepidation creeping in for this one.
Shenhua are reporting that they have a full squad to select from; with Wang Yun, Lv Zheng and Zhang Lu having returned to action over the past two games, that leaves only Bai Jiajun and Cao Yunding to return from injury – with Wang Shouting and Li Jianbin also available after serving suspensions against Shijiazhuang. The return of Bai is an undoubted boost to Shenhua’s defensive and attacking capabilities — the Duracell bunny left-back is a marked upgrade on replacement Fan Lingjiang. Cao — although very short of form and impact in recent weeks — may also have a role to play as the three-foreigners rule against China League One sides will surely see one of Tim Cahill or Moreno miss out.
Prediction and Reality Check
Although recent seasons — and the survival and even thriving of promoted sides — have shown that the gap between the bloated middle of the CSL and moneyed top of China League One is certainly closing, Shenhua have to go into this one as heavy favorites. The problem, of course, is that Shenhua don’t wear the “favorites” tag particularly comfortably, and often come a complacent cropper in games they are expected to dominate. While BG are undoubtedly prioritizing promotion, they may fancy their chances of an upset here.
If the game were played on paper, Shenhua’s individual class and BG’s lousy away form should make this a formality; a bumper Hongkou crowd is likely to be as cocky and nervous as the playing squad, and this could be a long, awkward evening. One caveat in Shenhua’s favor is the likely poor conditions with a typhoon on the way; for all the money spent by Greenland on individual class, Gillot’s side are all too often a supercharged long-ball side, the equivalent of taking an Aston Martin and using it for burnouts and drag racing. A heavy or slippery pitch might just play into the hands of the Frenchman’s approach of having the side knock it long for Ba to terrorize defenders and Moreno or Cahill to feed on the scraps. Either way, NTN is a little too scarred by last year to be confident here – an early Shenhua goal could and should open the floodgates and potential of sealing this tie inside 90 minutes, but there’s a nagging feeling that this is going to end up in the worst-possible score to defend away from home in the second leg* — 2-1 Shenhua.
Shenhua in 2015 according to North Terrace News:
P 27 W 7 D 10 L 10 GF 35 GA 37 GD -2 Pts 31
Shenhua in 2015 according to the CSL table:
P 27 W 10 D 6 L 11 GF 36 GA 42 GD -8 Pts 36
Steve Crooks is WEF’s Shanghai Shenhua correspondent. Check his North Terrace News column each week for the latest club developments.
*OK, that’s not strictly true. 0-4 would be worse. 2-1 is the classic stick-or-twist scoreline though.