We’re back! Following a winter laid low to lick their wounds, can Shanghai’s traditional power reassert themselves in 2016 with the Chinese Super League hotter than ever before following the January transfer window? North Terrace News evaluates the ins and outs, and Shenhua’s chances for the upcoming campaign.
Exit 2015: More questions than answers
As painful as it may be for all associated with the club, the story of the 2015-16 close season has to begin where it all ended – a Shenhua side on their knees in dazed disarray, somehow having contrived to lose a two-legged cup final in the most gut-wrenching way possible – 180 minutes of sterile, nervy regular time drifting towards penalties in front of a fervent, glory-starved home support, only to concede a sucker-punch goal and lay fruitless siege to the Jiangsu Sainty goal in a vain attempt to restore their evaporated pride.
Sainty went on to lift the trophy, to automatic Asian Champions League qualification, to become Jiangsu Suning with a massive cash injection and even bigger badge, to sign Ramires. Shenhua staggered numb into the winter, to wake up nursing a killer hangover and a list of new-season resolutions:
- Restore some positive feeling after the crushing end to 2015.
- Solve the Gio Moreno/Tim Cahill issue – the talismanic Colombian skipper and evergreen Aussie poacher had become a slightly watered-down Gerrard/Lampard conundrum for 2015 – both capable of scoring goals, but contributing little else from open play, and seemingly incapable of playing in the same midfield.
- Find a coach with more leadership, charisma and flexibility than a three-day-old corpse.
- Sign a left-winger. One with a left foot.
- Find some backup for Demba Ba.
- Sign a right-back. One who grew up playing in defence, not another winger to convert.
- Sign a center-back or two. Preferably one who can defend.
Remember to breathe. It’s only a game.
With the dust settling on the usual ins and outs, how have Shenhua done on their new year’s self-improvement binge?
Shenhua have used all five domestic transfer spots. Li Shuai joins on a short-term, pre-retirement contract from Guangzhou Evergrande. Li is something of a puzzling signing – still capable at 33 as his FIFA Club World Cup showing proves, he neverthless adds a third option where it was not needed – whether they choose Li, Geng Xiaofeng or even local legend Qiu Shenjiong, Shenhua now have probably the two best backup goalkeepers in the league and one man wearing the #1 shirt who isn’t quite good enough for the very top of the table.
The fullback issue has been addressed through the signings of both Li Yunqiu and Wang Lin. Both are making returns to the city – Li grew up at the Genbao football academy and shipping conglomerate formerly known as Shanghai East Asia, and returns from Beijing Guoan. Wang is a former Shenhua player who comes back having not exactly torn up any trees at Hangzhou in recent years. Presumably his signing is to fill the squad role of slightly suspect fullback with a questionable football ethics history, what with Wang Changqing now plying his trade full-time in the capital again.
The remaining two signings are exactly what the doctor ordered, however. Bi Jinhao didn’t come cheap, but he does come with solid pedigree from a breakthrough season at Henan having been converted from a lumbering center-forward into a solid center-back – a transformation which saw him achieve national team recognition. Qin Sheng is a solid screening midfielder in the prime of his career, having had a steady season in the north-east with Liaoning following his departure from a couple of years as a squad player with Evergrande.
The usual merry-go-round has come to a stop – until summer at least – with yet more changes to Shenhua’s international contingent. The biggest-profile signing is potentially Fredy Guarin – Shenhua deciding that one mercurial 29-year-old Colombian midfielder is just not enough, and pairing up Gio with a player boasting pedigree experience with Inter and Porto in Europe. Obafemi Martins is the second big-name signing of the close-season, joining from MLS side Seattle Sounders where he had a strong goalscoring pedigree. At 31, Martins may not quite have the explosive pace which caused defenders nightmares in his early Newcastle and Inter days, but the Nigerian clearly still has an eye for goal.
Seattle fans were somewhat upset by the departure of Martins, with Jeonbuk Motors fans also lamenting the departure of Kim Ki-Hee — the versatile 26-year-old South Korean international joins for the largest fee in K-League history, with the ability to play in a number of positions across the backline and in defensive midfield.
Rounding out the moves, Shenhua replaced Francis Gillot as head coach with former Beijing Guoan man Gregorio Manzano – Greenland deciding to replace a no-name European coach with a long and strictly middling career featuring one domestic cup win, occasional short-lived European adventures, and general mid-table anonymity with…
It’s goodbye to three of last year’s international contingent, with all three seeing their contracts waived and paid off – curiously in the case of Tim Cahill, this coming just shortly after re-signing a new deal with the Australian. Cahill moves to Hangzhou Greentown where his experience and nose for a goal will undoubtedly come in welcome – and all bets should already be off on Timmy netting against Shenhua when the sides meet, with Hangzhou already being a bogey team for the Hongkou side.
Mo Sissoko is currently in a limbo one would expect to be resolved fairly shortly, with the big Malian having been a key player for Shenhua following his mid-season signing last year. Avraam Papadopoulos was last sighted being taken out back on the way to the glue factory.
Domestically, Jiang Kun will no longer be gracing the Hongkou bench and putting in those ten-minute substitute cameos in lost-cause games – he joins the much younger utility man Fan Lingjiang (he of the impressive 2014 and awful 2015) in moving to Qingdao Huanghai.
Plus ca change, plus c’est la meme chose. Shenhua have some interesting tactical questions to answer this season – who anchors the midfield in the absence of Sissoko, who to pair up at center-back, how to inject some pace into a potentially languid frontline, and whether Ba and Martins can work as a front two or – more likely – as a attack leader and impact-sub deputy. Despite a low-key start to the winter window, and being comprehensively out-headlined by Chinese football’s nouveau-nouveau-riche throughout, the squad building has generally been cautiously positive, and many of the items on their to-do list have been checked-off — still waiting on that left-footed winger, though.
The jury may be very much out on Manzano, but he does bring some experience of the ideosyncratic world of Chinese football. ACL qualification may just about be outside the reaches of this squad, however – on their day they will be unbeatable, and put some seriously good sides to the sword at Hongkou, but there are also suspicions over a lack of a real Plan B going forwards, and a potentially lightweight midfield. Another season battling around fifth or sixth, with some long winning and losing streaks, and potentially another cup run – the blue three-quarters of Shanghai may not be tasting that silverware any time soon, but there should be plenty of entertainment and high-caliber goals served up at Hongkou again in 2016.
Steve Crooks is WEF’s Shanghai Shenhua correspondent. Check his North Terrace News column each week for the latest club developments.
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