It’s the big one. Everyone’s favorite shipping conglomerate welcomes the city’s narcoleptic giant for the first edition of 2016’s Shanghai derby. Expect goals, drama, and more likely than not a red card or two…
A fallen champion
For years Shenhua were top of the pile – with the city’s traditional power winning all four of their intra-city derbies in 2013 against a debuting East Asia and the dearly-departed Shenxin. 2014 also saw Shenhua come undefeated through these fixtures – winning three and drawing an ill-tempered affair down at Shanghai Stadium. The changing tides of football in the city were cruelly highlighted in this fixture early last season, however – after being thumped 5-0 down in Xujiahui by the newly-branded Shanghai International Port Group Football Club, Shenhua never recovered that local swagger in the league – losing the return fixture at Hongkou, and somehow even failing to defeat bottom-of-the-pile Shenxin in a dismal affair at Yuanshen stadium.
Shenhua did, of course, see off both their local rivals at Hongkou in last season’s run to the cup final – the quarter-final penalty shootout drama in particular will live long in the memory.
A growing rivalry
This current iteration of the Shanghai derby has quickly grown into one of the most hotly-contested rivalries in the CSL – Shanghai is a city large enough to support two serious top-flight teams, and this one has the classic sub-plots of established legacy up against the chippy upstart, and fading glory being faced with brash new money. While the contests on the pitch have been closely-fought and often tense affairs (last season’s blowout being the exception to the rule), unfortunately the rivalry off the pitch has developed in a way which is much unhealthier at times.
Shenhua’s official ticket allocation for a match in an 80,000-seater stadium in their own city stands at a ridiculous 600 – yes, you read that right, no missing zeroes – for this fixture. This marks the latest step in an unedifying tit-for-tat rivalry which saw all Shanghai International Port Group fans barred from Hongkou for the cup match last season, following on from Shenhua receiving only a thousand tickets for this fixture last season, following on from Shanghai International Port Group complaints about small ticket allocations at Hongkou in 2014 and fears about being outnumbered in their own stadium in the reverse leg. At this point in the spat, it really doesn’t matter who started it – both clubs’ management are scrabbling around in the moral dirt like toddlers, and one side really should rise above the pettiness and give their rivals a proper allocation for the next fixture – having a passionate atmosphere in the ground is one of the highlights of any true derby. As great as the memories from last year’s cup game are, there was something intensely weird and wrong about seeing Wu Lei slam in a screamer from 25 yards out to pull his side back into contention, only to be met with stunned silence from a stadium with no away fans to celebrate. As a more erudite terrace wag than NTN remarked at the time, this might be how it feels to watch sport in Pyongyang.
And please don’t give me the ‘safety’ line – not handing out tickets is hardly going to lessen the number of Shenhua fans in Shanghai who will be congregating to watch the game, and actually organizing them together at a known venue (the stadium) under the auspices of a concentrated police presence should make any potential for trouble easier to manage, as opposed to seeing dispersed pockets in bars and restaurants throughout the city.
Matters on the pitch
Neither side has had quite the start to 2016 they will have been hoping for – Shanghai International Port Group have done well at home but poorly in their trips away, and Shenhua started the year with a performance as bad as any they put in last year. The 1-1 against Yanbian could and perhaps should have ended in a worse scoreline – although Demba Ba did uncharacteristically waste a few good close-range opportunities for Shenhua also. It doesn’t really come as a surprise that both Lv Zheng and Cao Yunding still have no end product, for all the former’s pace and the latter’s dribbling skills. It was something of a shock to see that Shenhua still very much have no Plan B beyond the long ball to Ba, however – Fredy Guarin looked one-paced and anonymous, and Gio Moreno put in one of his worst performances in a Shenhua shirt, consistently surrendering possession and finally being caught out by an opposing team streetwise to the fact that he literally can’t (or won’t) kick a football with his right foot and is hence easily turned into trouble. Moreno was so poor that he was hooked by Gregorio Manzano in spite of his captain’s stature, and was even booed off by sections of the Hongkou crowd. The lanky #10’s place in the side for Friday evening has even been called into question in some quarters online, with calls to start with the 4-4-2 which ended the Yanbian match relatively brightly, and Obafemi Martins starting from the off.
NTN would counsel against this, however – whereas this correspondent can generally be found berating Shenhua coaches for their lack of attacking intent, an away-day derby at a dangerous wounded beast such as Shanghai International Port Group is maybe not the time to go for the jugular too early. Shenhua struggled to keep their emotional tone in check in the biggest games of last season, and more indiscipline here could be easily exploited by both the referee – likely to clamp down on the two sides who racked up the most fouls in CSL gameweek one – and opponents featuring such attacking prowess as Dario Conca, Elkeson, and Wu Lei. Shenhua might be best served by sitting tight, keeping the ball and seeing how Shanghai International Port Group handle the not-yet-comfortable tag of favorites – and any side with Demba Ba on the pitch and Oba Martins kept in reserve should have plenty of their own capability to threaten on the break. Moreno may be worth giving a chance again here, too – the captain has come up with some talismanic performances and big goals in this fixture in recent seasons.
In injury news, Shenhua should have a full squad to select from, with close-season signings Li Yunqiu and Wang Lin reportedly back in training action, meaning the willing Xiong Fei may well drop to the bench.
Prediction & Reality Check
As much as it pains a dyed-in-the-wool Shenhua fan to admit it, Shanghai International Port Group are favorites here – they have the better manager, more established side, and more consistent talent across the pitch. It will likely be a nervy affair – neither side have really hit the ground running (in contrast to the top-of-the-table status this clash enjoyed early last season) and there is a lot to lose here for two sides with something of a recent vintage of bottling it in the biggest games. It may well be one for fans of both sides to watch from behind the sofa (and Shenhua fans will have little other choice, what with Shanghai International Port Group’s miserly ticket allocation), but the home side will ultimately nick it. 2-1 to Shanghai International Port Group Football Club.
Shenhua in 2016 according to North Terrace News:
P 1 W 1 D 0 L 0 GF 3 GA 1 GD +1 Pts 3
Shenhua in 2016 according to the CSL table:
P 1 W 0 D 1 L 0 GF 1 GA 1 GD +0 Pts 1
Steve Crooks is WEF’s Shanghai Shenhua correspondent. Check his North Terrace News column each week for the latest club developments.