After all the spending and posturing, it’s time for football to take centre stage once again. Hongkou sees 2016 get underway with a Goliath v David clash – how will the stumbling giant of Shenhua fare against the slingshot trajectory of a club which seemed set to begin 2015 in League Two?
Visitors on the up
Yanbian provided perhaps the feelgood story of Chinese football in 2015, putting together a season which makes Claudio Ranieri’s Leicester look like underachievers. Having ended 2014 in 16th place, they were relegated from China League One, only to be handed a last-minute reprieve due to Shaanxi Wuzhou’s financial issues. Grabbing this second chance with both hands, the side from the ethnic Korean autonomous prefecture romped to the title, losing only three games all year, doubling their regular crowd in the process and producing the league’s top scorer in South Korean Ha Tae-Goon.
Yanbian have kept their championship winning side together, and bolstered their dangerous forward line – Ha being supported by the excellently-named Gambian winger Bubacarr Trawally (aka Steve) with Pohang Steelers’ Kim Seung-Dae, and adding some steel in the middle of the park and defence with more smart domestic and international signings. If 2015-16 in world football is teaching us anything, it’s to be wary of the motivated underdog – Shenhua should not go into this game expecting an easy task, despite a gulf in pedigree.
The twice-yearly Shenhua revolving door has come to a temporary stop, with the entry of yet another middling foreign coach and series of big-name players who relatively recently lit up European leagues. Coach Gregorio Manzano will have some work to do in winning over much of the Shenhua faithful – while the board seem to have a lot of public faith in their new appointment, many fans are understandably skeptical. It’s one thing to appoint a manager coming off a season of relative failure, and another to take a manager straight from your biggest traditional rival. Appointing a manager who just failed at your biggest rival, however, is quite the act of faith from a board — in light of a reputation for dull and conservative football at Guoan, Manzano may see Shenhua’s relatively benign opening fixture run of 2016 as an opportunity to play on the front foot and banish both his – and Shenhua’s – 2015 legacy of overly inflexible football.
Shenhua could quite conceivably field an all-new back five on Saturday, having signed a goalkeeper (Li Shuai), two center-backs (Bi Jinhao and Kim Ki-Hee) and two full-backs (Li Yunqiu and Wang Lin). Wang has, however, likely been signed as back-up, with Li likely to start at right-back and the ever-effervescent Bai Jiajun retaining his position running endlessly up and down the entire left flank for 90 minutes. Bi will clearly walk into the team as first-choice center-back, but there are question marks over whether Kim starts in central defence or defensive midfield – and allegedly Shenhua’s three keepers have been drawing lots over who starts as first-pick during pre-season.
Trying to predict a starting lineup when there has been such flux during the close-season is something of a mug’s game — thankfully NTN is no stranger to such prediction folly, and is expecting Manzano to opt for a 4-2-3-1 as follows: Li Shuai; Li Yunqiu, Bi Jinhao, Kim Ke-Hee, Bai Jiajun; Wang Yun, Fredy Guarin; Zhang Lu, Gio Moreno, Cao Yunding; Demba Ba. Imagine the game-stretching pace of a substitutes’ bench including Obafemi Martins and Lv Zheng — for the first time in a while, Shenhua’s coach will have some genuine game-changing options to call on from his reserves.
Is this going to be Shenhua’s traditionally-easy curtain-raiser now that Shenxin have finally been relegated? Are the boys in blue once again going to struggle to break down a strong-willed side who come to Hongkou to sit deep and hit on the break? Will the Shenhua backline once again be undone by a winger like Steve with pace and trickery? Or will this be a return to the 1990s; Yanbian’s promotion sees them back in the top flight for the first time in the best part of two decades, and few Shenhua fans will need reminding of what happened the last time their side kicked off a season with a fixture against Yanbian — 1995 ended, of course, with the Hongkou side top of the pile and celebrating a title win.
Reaality Check & Prediction
Shenhua are not going to win the league this season, but they should win this game. It’s foolish to write Yanbian off – title-winning sides come up with momentum, and recent years have shown the gap between the bottom of the CSL and top of League One isn’t necessarily insurmountable. For NTN‘s money, Yanbian will score enough goals to stay up this season – they are coming up against a side here with something of a feelgood factor following a good end to the transfer window, and who should finally have the ball-playing options through Guarin and Moreno – alongside the likes of Cao and Wang Yun – to be able to unlock packed defences a bit better than in previous more one-dimensional years.
Shenhua will have a couple of scares along the way – don’t even be too surprised to see Yanbian take the lead – but should have too much quality and firepower on the pitch and from the bench to come out victorious here and start the season with a 3-1 home win.
Steve Crooks is WEF’s Shanghai Shenhua correspondent. Check his North Terrace News column each week for the latest club developments.