Two of the three teams still undefeated at this early juncture come together at Nanjing Olympic Stadium on Saturday evening. Big-spending Jiangsu
Sainty Suning have continued making headlines by topping the early table – can Gregorio Manzano’s work-in-progress Shenhua side trip up their local rivals and begin making amends for last season’s cup debacle?
No way through for Shenhua against Shandong
Last weekend’s Shenhua-Luneng saw a very cautious first half in which two sides who will want to consider themselves heavyweights but haven’t quite found form yet in 2016 tried to suss each other out. Sensing an opportunity, Shenhua were a little more direct and forward-looking in the second half, roared on by one of those rare atmospheres in which Hongkou makes all those cliches — best football stadium in China, most passionate and long-suffering home support, the value of having that “twelfth man” — feel true. Despite the relentless efforts of the crowd and many of Shenhua’s players, the home side didn’t quite have the quality to put their visitors away. Gio Moreno continues to struggle to make an impact, Demba Ba looks isolated at times, and a deep-lying defence and high-pressing midfield can both snuff out the big Senegalese and also stop Fredy Guarin from making much of an impression further back.
The primary problem Shenhua have going forward is that none of the “3” in their 4-2-3-1 are making a consistent impression. Quite aside from Moreno’s struggles — the quality and impact of the big Colombian’s play seem inversely related to the quality of the side surrounding him — Cao Yunding still isn’t a natural winger, and Lv Zheng is stuck in a horrible rut of form and confidence, with the Shenhua support consistently on his back even before he has had the opportunity to make the inevitable mistake. There is little natural width elsewhere in the squad – Manzano really needs to take Lv out of the firing line and keep him as an impact sub. The Spanish coach seems reluctant to introduce Zhang Lu from the start or alter his side’s shape. NTN feels a little sorry for Lv – he still offers traits (direct running and genuine pace) which few in the squad can offer, and has good instinctive technical ability. His crossing and decision-making are inconsistent at the best of times however, and he’s currently in an inward-spiraling crisis of confidence which is painful to watch and detrimental to his side – hopefully he can rediscover his mojo and make more of an impact from the bench against tired legs.
Time for a plan B?
Presumably Obafemi Martins didn’t leave a successful and acclaimed spell as a leading light in Major League Soccer to get nothing more than the occasional ten-minute run-out in Shanghai. Signed primarily as a backup for Ba, the springy Nigerian nevertheless offers options which Shenhua might want to use from the get-go to play with an alternative approach – particularly when perhaps the only true natural winger in their entire squad is suffering so badly. Could it be time for 4-4-2 and a midfield diamond? Stick Qin Sheng in the screening role at the base, and then a combination of Cao, Wang Yun and one of the Colombians in the other positions, and perhaps Shenhua could play through the middle with a bit more zip and solidity – and two rangy strikers stretching the defence for their colleagues to spray through-balls to.
Shenhua, it must be repeated every time this fixture rolls around, have never won in Nanjing. Never. Even when the side then known as Sainty were newly-promoted and making smart budget signings while Shenhua were recreating Premier League front-lines and starting national-team players across their starting XI. Have the tables now turned? The difference between the two sides isn’t as large as it might appear – sure, Jiangsu are newly-rich and top of the table, with their expensively-acquired Brazilian talismans (talismen?) Ramires and Alex Teixeira making an immediate impact, having won a trophy last year and being reasonably set in their ACL group to progress to the next stage, but for all their momentum, it’s possible to argue that man-for-man they’re no stronger than the still-slumbering giant from Hongkou. For all their issues – an underperforming captain, a lack of zip in the midfield, question marks over the goalkeeper – there is real quality in this Shenhua squad, and some stirrings of a team and a gameplan starting to form here.
The problem, of course, is the remarkable mental hold which their erstwhile little cousin seems to have over them. Shenhua are specialists at putting Jiangsu to the sword in relatively low-stakes games at Hongkou — see the Ba-inspired 3-1 shellacking which ended their 2015 league campaign — but consistently come up short and neurotic (their own footballing Napoleon complex?) in the games that matter. If the CFA cup semi-final collapse in 2014 was bad enough, the nature of 2015’s cup final defeat might be something which Shenhua never truly recover from – the clear favorites on paper, Shenhua played with an odd mixture of conservatism and nerves throughout, waking up in their nightmare only when it was already too late following Sainty’s extra-time smash-and-grab winner at Hongkou. Following some how-did-they-not-win-that 2-2 ties at the Olympic Stadium in years gone by, Shenhua might well find themselves in a cold sweat every time a big game with the Nanjing side rolls around. For a side which has generally had a proud upper-hand in Shanghai Derbies, Shenhua has a curiously rotten record against their Yangtze Delta near-rivals.
Prediction and reality check
It’s all to play for here – Shenhua’s draw-filled start to the season feels wasteful, but in reality they’re positioned decently well in the early standings and by dint of Hebei having a game in hand, these are the only two teams in China’s topsy-turvy flight to have made it four games into the year without defeat.
Shenhua could win this game – they have the quality and the know-how in their squad to do it, but in order to do so it is absolutely imperative that they start on the front foot and go at the home side from the off. If Shenhua start cagey, they are doomed. They will, however, almost certainly start cautiously — this is a side coached by a famously conservative manager, playing an away game against a fancied table-topping side with big stars in their ranks. In many situations, taking a safety-first approach and using the pace and power of Demba Ba on the break would make perfect sense. The problem with that is the undoubted mental demons which will creep in — the longer it stays 0-0, the more inevitable it will be to the 22 men on the field and the 60,000 in the stands that it’s only a matter of time until Jiangsu land the sucker-punch which once again knocks the wind out of Shenhua, and they can then pick the Hongkou side off at will on the break.
Unfortunately NTN can’t see Manzano going for the jugular here – an ultimately comfortably 2-0 home win for a side who Shenhua might end up looking afraid to attack until it’s already too late yet again.
Shenhua in 2016 according to North Terrace News:
P 4 W 3 D 0 L 1 GF 8 GA 4 GD +4 Pts 9
Shenhua in 2016 according to the CSL table:
P 4 W 1 D 3 L 0 GF 5 GA 3 GD +2 Pts 6
Steve Crooks is WEF’s Shanghai Shenhua correspondent. Check his North Terrace News column each week for the latest club developments.