Fresh from worsening the relegation fears of Guizhou Renhe, Shanghai Shenhua will Sunday evening host a side with concerns at the opposite end of the table – can Shandong Luneng leave Hongkou with the three points they need to stay on the coat-tails of Guangzhou Evergrande and Shanghai International Port Group?
Shenhua’s 2-1 victory in Guizhou was notable for a couple of features – firstly some very inconsistent finishing from the Hongkou side, whose build up play was good enough to have made the scoreline much more comfortable, and secondly the rare sight of a truly well-balanced Shenhua midfield.
Captain Gio Moreno and top-scorer Tim Cahill both got on the scoresheet in the first half, with the pair of natural number 10’s putting in a rare dovetailing performance — Moreno in particular was heavily involved in almost everything good which Shenhua put together on the night. This column has not been alone in wondering whether Moreno and Cahill were something of a Gerrard-Lampard conundrum for the modern-day CSL — neither player’s pedigree or individual impact is in doubt, but their pairing in a midfield rarely working out for the team overall.
The difference last weekend was evidently the return of Mo Sissoko from injury — Shenhua’s leggy #14 provides an engine, class and match intelligence which few in the CSL can rival, and gives the attacking midfielders much more of a platform from which to do their creative thing; it’s no coincidence that this more balanced midfield line-up also coincided with Cao Yunding’s first good game in some time, with the diminutive Shanghainese playmaker laying on the assist for Moreno’s opener.
Return of the King
It’s impossible to look at a fixture against Shandong without the inevitable Wang Dalei discussion coming up — particularly given the China #1’s tearful post-match pitch walk on his first return to Hongkou last season. An unscientific straw poll of Shenhua fans guarantees to put Wang as their most-desired transfer target, and it’s difficult to argue the sentiment — the mop-haired, slightly unhinged goalkeeper became part of the fabric of the club during his time at Hongkou, and while Geng Xiaofeng is a competent top-half CSL goalkeeper, Wang is China’s stand-out goalkeeper. NTN would actually throw Dai Lin back into the transfer planning too — while a somewhat more controversial pick than Wang, and clearly with disciplinary issues and a propensity to shoot high and wide from 50 yards out, we’re talking about improving a side which started with Xiong Fei at center-back in their last game here.
Shenhua are in danger of becoming China’s version of a pre-Simeone Atletico Madrid this year — despite their best intentions otherwise, they can’t help buy help out their cross-city rivals in the league. Having taken points off Beijing Guoan and Guangzhou Evergrande in the second half of the season, Shenhua face the opportunity here to decisively knock one of Shanghai International Port Group Football Club’s rivals out of the title race for good.
Luneng of course have history of their own, including a desperately poor record at Hongkou. The past couple of seasons have seen some remarkable smash-and-grab Shenhua performances against superior opponents; you have to go all the way back to 2010 for the last time Shandong departed with the three points they require this Sunday. The omens are not all negative for the visitors, however — the last time they took three points at Shenhua, they won their last league title.
Prediction and Reality Check
There is some surprise that Shandong remain in the title race at this stage; while there is undoubted pedigree in the squad, their cohesion and management fell apart badly at times in 2014 and would seem to be a clear step down from the remainder of the top three. Their form has remained solid throughout this season though, and they are potentially 9 games away from doing the league and cup double — a minor caveat being that they absolutely need to win every remaining game in order to do so.
It’s win or bust for Shandong — it’s difficult to imagine a draw as a result. Shenhua have nothing to play for in the league, but may as well keep their top side in shape for the upcoming cup semis and build some form to take into the new season. With their visitors likely to need to attack, the result will be decided by how well a makeshift-looking budget Shenhua rearguard can keep their organization — an amateurish and misfiring offside trap provided Guizhou with the few chances they created in the last game. Shenhua’s forward line will have less scope to mis-fire than in their last fixture too; expect some end-to-end stuff, with the visitors’ quality and desire just winning out in a 2-1 Luneng win.
Shenhua in 2015 according to North Terrace News:
P 25 W 7 D 9 L 9 GF 33 GA 34 GD -1 Pts 30
Shenhua in 2015 according to the CSL table:
P 25 W 10 D 6 L 9 GF 35 GA 38 GD -5 Pts 36
Steve Crooks is WEF’s Shanghai Shenhua correspondent. Check his North Terrace News column each week for the latest club developments.