It’s come to this – after another full season of football, only 90 minutes remain. With nothing separating the sides after a cagey first leg, Shanghai Shenhua face off against Jiangsu Sainty at Hongkou on Sunday afternoon to decide the destination of the 2015 Chinese FA Cup.
First Leg Stalemate
Conditions weren’t ideal in Nanjing last Sunday for the first leg — a vocal crowd of 53,000 created a passionate atmosphere which wasn’t always matched by events on the pitch. Both Sainty and Shenhua were understandably nervous going into the final first leg, and some very slippery underfoot conditions didn’t really help either a short passing game or some of the more ambitious defence-splitting balls which Shenhua tried on occasion.
You could argue the toss for either side regarding who deserved to win; ultimately 0-0 was a perfectly fair result for two sides neither of whom was close to on top of their game. Sainty’s key forward Sergio Escudero had the home side’s best openings in the first period, but twice failed to make Geng Xiaofeng work, both times curling the ball beyond the frame of the goal when well-placed. For Shenhua, an otherwise subdued Demba Ba had an opportunistic penalty shout, and Cao Yunding should really have done better than shooting tamely at Deng Xiaofei after he kept his composure to take down a dangerous ball lofted in towards the back post.
The game flared up briefly late in the second half, with Sainty substitute defender Yang Xiaotian being red-carded for following up a very ugly leg-breaker of a tackle with an ill-advised attempt to poke an incensed Cao in the eye; while the diminutive Shenhua playmaker may have overreacted to ensure his opponent was punished, Yang should know the laws of the game and should probably have seen a straight red for his tackle, let alone the shenanigans afterwards.
Solidity Without Service
A makeshift-feeling center-back pairing of Li Jianbin and Tao Jin conducted themselves well throughout the game for Shenhua, with only a couple of minor lapses which went unpunished by an equally-nervy Sainty frontline. Francis Gillot has a decision to make regarding his back four — sticking with the unit which defended ably in Nanjing, or reinstating the fit-again Xiong Fei, a player who has grown slowly more dependable over the season. For NTN‘s money, Tao should keep his place – Xiong is still prone to the occasional costly mistake, and Tao has done little to deserve dropping in the games he has played.
A more pressing concern is surely the continued poor form of both Cao and captain Gio Moreno. Neither Demba Ba nor Tim Cahill contributed much during the first leg, but this owed much to a series of possession-wasting lapses from players who are capable of so much better. Cahill was deployed almost as a second striker in what resembled a classical 4-4-2 at times — unfortunately neither of the wide men were able to provide a consistent delivery into the box or behind the backline, and the creative players will really need to step up at Hongkou and show their early-season form if Ba and Cahill are to prosper come Sunday. Despite some positional tinkering, Gillot oddly didn’t make a single subsititution during the game, even with the home side down to ten men late on – will this lack of trust in his squad come back to bite the Frenchman?
It’s been well-documented in this column that Shenhua these days do not make a convincing favorite, and frequently drop points in games against sides they really should be expected to beat. The semi-final first leg against second-tier Beijing Beikong is a classic example — the home side struggled to find any rhythm and a crowd beset by expectancy and fear struggled to create an atmosphere to lift their side. Following their fall from grace, Shenhua were finding their voice as a punchy underdog in games against the CSL’s new order — as silverware, glory, and continental qualification are once again within touching distance, the nerves of a club and fanbase are torn between dreams and nightmares – much may ride on whether Hongkou is tense and uncertain come Sunday, or whether the terraces are able to swallow their fear and unite behind their side in song under the impressive tifos which have been weeks in preparation.
Prediction and Reality Check
Shenhua are bolstered by the late-week return of Demba Ba, who had flown to Europe to attend the birth of his child. Long-haul flights and freezing cold temperatures may not be ideal preparation, but the Senegalese hitman remains the deadliest striker in China, and will be looking to add to his cup top-scorer tally of six goals thus far.
Expect another tense and cagey opening, and Nanjing to always be in the tie due to Shenhua’s lack of an away goal. The first goal should open the tie up whoever scores — Shenhua are a much more dangerous side when picking teams off on the counter or throwing the kitchen sink at them, rather than trying to unpick a massed defence. Sainty did a good job of harrying Shenhua’s central midfielders last week, but if either Cao or Moreno can step up, then Cahill and Ba are simply too deadly in front of goal for Shenhua to go through another 90 minutes without scoring. Although inevitably it’s the hope, rather than the disappointment, which shreds the nerves of the football fan, there is real quality and steel in the core of this Shenhua side; quality and steel which will come through and show with a 2-1 Shenhua win sparking celebrations across Shanghai as the city finally welcomes home some footballing silverware.
Shenhua in 2015 according to North Terrace News:
P 30 W 9 D 11 L 10 GF 42 GA 40 GD +2 Pts 38
Shenhua in 2015 according to the CSL table:
P 30 W 12 D 6 L 12 GF 42 GA 44 GD -2 Pts 42
Steve Crooks is WEF’s Shanghai Shenhua correspondent. Check his North Terrace News column each week for the latest club developments.