It’s time. The city of Shanghai holds its breath in anticipation of silverware in 2015 – can Shenhua settle the butterflies with a strong first-leg performance in a city in which they have never before won a game?
Laying Down a Marker
The 2015 CSL season ended with a dress-rehearsal for the upcoming cup final. At a sunny mid-day Hongkou, Shenhua and their bruising direct game rolled-out comfortable 3-1 winners, with frontman Demba Ba proving once again that, when on-form and in the mood, he is a cut above any defence the CSL has to offer. The Senegalese #9 put in a consumate showing, bagging a hat-trick to set nerves racing in the Sainty rearguard ahead of the double-header cup final meeting.
Rumors Rumors Rumors
The international break had its usual silly-season speculation; while Tim Cahill returned to Shanghai early following Australia’s qualifiers, the media were reporting some speculative stories linking Ba to a return to Turkey, due to the country having “better mosques” than Shanghai. Ba himself was one of the many to pour cold water on this paper talk, with the striker remaining in Shanghai to focus on the key matches coming up for his side. Shenhua lost a low-key warm-up match against lowly Jiezhou in South Korea, although this fixture should be viewed mainly as a fitness exercise rather than a meaningful competitive run-out.
Shenhua enter this fixture with their squad well-rested and at almost full strength, with only holding midfielder Wang Shouting out injured with a fracture. Wang is an unlikely starter in Shenhua’s first XI – assuming coach Francis Gillot sticks to his favored only 4-2-3-1 formation, Wang Yun and Mo Sissoko are clearly the first-choice deep lying midfielders.
In more positive news, defender Xiong Fei has returned to match-fitness following his horrific broken jaw injury sustained in a collision with team-mate Li Jianbin. This actually poses something of a selection dilemma for Gillot; does he partner the steady-again Li with Xiong — allowing him to deploy Sissoko, Gio Moreno, Tim Cahill and Ba — or switch in the experienced Avraam Papadopoulos at center-back? Shenhua ended the season with something of a rag-tag defence — the return to fitness of key players should bolster confidence ahead of the final.
Cloud Hangs Over Sainty
Generally one of the CSL’s better-run clubs, Sainty have punched above their weight fairly consistently over the years since their promotion to the top-flight. They have something of a hex over their bigger neighbors, with Shenhua having never won a game in Nanjing. There are cracks appearing in this “model club” facade in 2015 however — Sun Ke (he of the transfer fiasco) is a key player whose fitness is in doubt, and in general the side are facing somoe uncertianty due to being put up for sale by current owners Guoxin. There is speculation that a buyer may even move the side out of the city — seemingly in contravention to the 50-point plan, but the current situation in Haerbin is an illustration of how flexible the interpretation of the plan may be in reality. Regardless of their future destination, Sainty’s players are on a rumored 200,000,000RMB bonus for cup success — the opportunity for silverware and Asian Champions’ League qualification is a huge carrot for both sides in this fixture.
Shall We Sing a Song For You?
Should the cameras on Sunday pan to a spartan away following, television viewers should take this not as a slight on Shenhua’s support, but rather a mark of pride for those who manage to make it. The rationale behind two-legged cup finals (in general an aberration) is that in certain contexts — China included — they provide the opportunity for better fan turnout than a one-legged neutral venue. The powers-that-be have thus decided that on a weekend with no other football, the best option is to schedule the first leg at 7:45pm on a Sunday, and police this as a Hongkou-to-Hongkou “bubble game”. Saturday afternoon, Saturday evening, or Sunday afternoon would all see Shenhua fans able to attend this local derby in force — with Nanjing and Shanghai police bickering over who takes the costs and responsibility for mandatory protection of the fans’ round-trip, making it to Nanjing for a critical cup tie remains an unclear proposition for all in Shanghai. Rumors abound that Shenhua fans may be block-buying “home” tickets in certain sections; however they manage to get there, those supporting Shenhua will provide a great illustration of the lengths people will go to in order to follow their team, in spite of the disregard with which they are treated by the football authorities — something those of all persuasions should applaud.
Prediction and Reality Check
Shenhua go into this in the awkward position as favorites; a mantle they have not worn comfortably in recent years. The 3-1 win, while highlighting Demba Ba’s potency, was something of a misnomer — both sides had multiple chances, with momentum liable to shift either way throughout much of the game. If Shenhua don’t beat a team with inferior resources and ownership issues over 180 minutes of football, then serious questions must be asked of Gillot and his men. A first leg in a city where they have an awful record must be a concern for the Shanghai side however — an early goal either way might tip the balance decisively. There is so much at stake here — if form books go out the window in either cup games or local derbies, then predicting the score for a game like this is truly a mug’s game; this, however has never dissuaded NTN from trying in the past. For old-times’ sake, and taking nerves into account, let’s plump for a 2-2 draw here (both Sainty goals from controversial penalties, of course), with Shenhua set to finish the job at Hongkou on the 29th.
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.