Club football returns after yet another international break. Shanghai Shenhua kick the week off with a dictionary-definition dead-rubber at Hongkou before heading up to Beijing for a crucial cup tie.
Nobody Said it was Easy
September 30th feels like more than a couple of weeks ago already; a heady Hongkou night when the home side managed to make far heavier going of the CFA Cup semi-final first leg than even NTN feared. Your correspondent has watched a lot of football down the years, but can’t recall a home side ever being roundly booed from the field after winning a cup game — let alone deserving the heckling they received.
Frankly, a home tie against a side a whole division below is a better draw at this stage than any side has a right to expect. After doing potentially the hardest part of the job — taking control of the banana-skin tie early doors and scoring a goal to assert their dominance and settle any butterflies — Shenhua managed to royally screw things up in a way only they seem capable of. One of the most expensively-assembled sides in Asian football history was reduced to a one-dimensional parody of themselves in the face of some plucky underdog opponents, pumping the ball long to Demba Ba time and time again. Were it not for the undoubted quality of Ba, and some possibly generous refereeing — although both penalties, in fairness, were just about fouls and denials of goalscoring openings — Shenhua wilted and showed that coach Francis Gillot barely has a Plan A worthy of the name, let alone a Plan B. Plan JK was however put into action — answers on a postcard, please, to the question to which “Jiang Kun” is the answer. “Who is the man to turn around a cowardly performance and boss a midfield as first-choice substitute in the year 2015” is certainly not the question.
3-2 it ended — Beikong’s rope-a-dope tactic of bringing fresh attacking legs on from the bench in the second half once again paying cup-tie dividends — and Shenhua have themselves the classic stick-or-twist dilemma they really should have had the pedigree to avoid.
There was some definite soul searching in the Shenhua support community following the side being jeered from the pitch; the Hongkou faithful are in a fraught place these days. Having come to terms with the side’s glory days being gone, it’s the hope which kills these days — in the same way that recent vintages of Shenhua sides have always looked more comfortable as underdogs than when forcing the game, the Hongkou crowd also doesn’t always respond too well to their side being favorites. That famous pressed-to-the-pitch twelfth-man roar easily becomes uneasy silence, groans at misplaced passes, and fears that we’ve been here before. Throw in the unexpectedly quick ascent of an upstart noisy neigbour this season, and it’s easy to see why the Hongkou faithful are a little jumpier than their reputation might otherwise suggest.
Shenhua on the pitch looked a side badly struggling for an identity also — every game without Mo Sissoko strengthens the argument that the former Liverpool man was every bit as important a mid-season signing as Ba, and Gio Moreno had an unusually poor game, the Colombian often being the man to rise to the big occasion. With Gillot unable to inspire or re-organize his men, rumors floated during the international break of a former international manager being courted as a replacement. Former Italian head coach Cesare Prandelli may have something of an up-and-down CV, but his pedigree and successes do speak a little louder than those of the softly-spoken Frenchman. Short of winning the CFA Cup and putting Shenhua into the Asian Champions’ League, it’s difficult to see Gillot winning the more vocal side of Shenhua’s fanbase back over in the coming weeks; could change be afoot in the close-season?
Nothing to Play For?
This is the classic end-of-season dead rubber. Shenhua and Changchun sit seventh and eighth, with neither side able to challenge for a continental qualification spot and both safe from relegation. Shenhua’s approach to Saturday’s game should be interesting; does Gillot attempt to rally his troops, win over the faithful and get some competitive football in ahead of the make-or-break midweek trip, or does he take the opportunity to keep his big guns fresh and give some fringe players a rare chance to impress? Either way, Shenhua’s players may be surprisingly relieved to see the return of Ma Ning — the official who sent off three Shenhua players in that early-season Shanghai derby should at least act as a lightning rod to draw any frustration from the crowd.
Everything to Play For!
Shenhua must be hoping that Beijing Beikong win their League One fixture in Harbin this weekend — anything else would all but rule them out of the lucrative promotion race, and leave them free to focus 100% on turning over the slightest of first-leg deficits in the semi-final home leg on Wednesday evening. With a seemingly-weaker Jiangsu Sainty having won away from home at Shandong in the other semi final, Shenhua know that they are 270 minutes of very winnable football away from a trophy and return to the biggest stage in the Asian club game.
A side with Shenhua’s pedigree — the majority of their nominal first XI are capped internationals, and bring hundreds of games of top-flight experience in the European game’s biggest leagues with them — really should go into a game against a second-tier side as favorites, particularly with Shenhua holding a goal advantage. And yet, particularly for anyone who watched the first leg almost-car-crash from behind the sofa, it’s difficult to imagine the Hongkou side doing things the easy way. Even a 2-1 defeat would send Shenhua home packing — the unthinkable is all too easy to imagine.
Prediction and Reality Check
The league game is likely to be more slow-paced thud-and-blunder than high-paced blood-and-thunder; the very definition of an end-of-season game, NTN recommends taking the opportunity to enjoy a rare 3:00 afternoon kick-off and some late-October sun down at Hongkou. 1-1 does neither side any favors; it’s difficult to imagine a result which really means anything either way though.
Wednesday night will be an altogether more tense affair — Shenhua should have the quality to see this one home, but Beikong can be tricky customers and will be playing almost without pressure. Shenhua will just about edge through, although not without major scares right until the end — 2-2, the narrowest of aggregate victories, and the communal heart-rate of Shanghai to spike through the roof for 90 minutes or so.
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.