Shanghai Shenhua get the holiday weekend underway with the tough trip to Tianhe. Can they take the momentum of last weekend’s rebound victory over Hebei with them, or will the wounded beast of the home side continue their domestic dominance?
Hebei win difficult to evaluate
Was last Sunday’s much-needed home win a routine victory over a newly-promoted side, achieved through an early slice of fortune and some resolute defending? Or was it a valuable three points over a side with top attacking talent who’re going to end the season with a strong away record? Only time will tell – it’s quite possible that the 2-0 Hongkou win was a little from column A, a little from column B.
Ersan Gulum had a first ten minutes to forget – flicking home his second own-goal of the season with a lazy outstretched boot (a move known as the reverse Berbatov) followed by scything down Cao Yunding for a cast-iron penalty which Gio Moreno coolly slammed home to prevent Demba Ba a nervous breakdown. 2-0 up in front of a passionate home crowd and it was effectively game, set and match right there for Shenhua. Hebei huffed and puffed but didn’t get too close to blowing down a very solid rearguard, and Shenhua continued to look more direct and threatening than they had managed in recent weeks.
Lv Zheng: from zero to hero and back again
Proving a twist on that tired cliche about the out-of-form striker just needing one to go in off his backside to get back onto a goalscoring streak, Shenhua’s bang-out-of-form winger seemed energised by the early reward for his directness against Hebei resulting in the opening goal from a center-back’s error. Spurred on by a fickle element of the home crowd, Lv played with a directness and confidence which troubled his full-back every bit as much as the more vaunted international wingers on display in Hebei’s colors. It’s ironic and unfortunate that an evening which began with one reminder of Hebei’s season-opener (a comedy Gulum own goal) also ended with a second for Lv – whether there is a genuine much-needed push from CSL referees to clamp down on timewasting remains to be seen consistently, but here was another extremely soft second yellow card for slightly delaying a throw-in. Just as Lv had put in a performance to finally earn his starting place in the side, he went and got himself suspended for the next match.
Big decisions at the back for Gregorio Manzano
Saturday evening’s game provides yet another example of the frankly-illegal-anywhere-else-in-the-world example of a CSL player on a permanent transfer being ineligible to face his former employer. On the face of it Li Shuai should not be a great loss for Shenhua, even though the deciduous (that’s the opposite of evergreen, right?) shot-stopper has put in some solid appearances of late. Manzano however is known to not be much of a fan of previous #1 Geng Xiaofeng, going as far as to stipulate that as part of his signing to manage Shenhua he wanted to ensure the club replaced the mostly-reliable but prone-to-big-ricks former China international keeper with… insert your own punchline here.
Whether Manzano fancies Geng so little as to opt for reformed humorous chubster Qiu Shenjiong in nets is only half of the dilemma facing the Spanish coach, though. In addition to deciding on his preferred back-up keeper, the former Guoan man also needs to decide whether Bi Jinhao gets back in the side once he returns from injury. The fit-again Li Jianbin put in a commanding performance alongside Kim Ki-hee last week – whatever an increasingly-desperate Hebei threw at Shenhua, the two center-halves blocked or headed back away with interest. NTN has always been of the opinion that Li just needs to play alongside a quality center-back to see his own strengths come to the fore — Bi is certainly a player with a stronger reputation and perhaps more of a future, but his increasingly-nervy pre-injury performances don’t necessarily mean a recall should be guaranteed just yet.
Seeing continental cup holders get eliminated in the group stages always throws a bit of drama across their local footballing landscape, and begs the question – is this a blip or a sign of terminal decline? Evergrande have been mostly imperious in terms of results (five wins and a defeat from six) if not always performances in the CSL this year, but the feeling persists that they are suffering from something not-dissimilar to coach Phil Scolari’s former side Chelsea – big-money owners obsessed with signing big-name international strikers whose form has long disappeared, and an aging if quality domestic spine.
A genuine question for those who watch Evergrande with greater frequency and detail than NTN – has this side slowly been getting weaker year-on-year since that first ACL win, or is the rest of the CSL catching up? The era of a younger Zheng Zhi and career-peak Muriqui and Conca pulling sides all over the place feels like a long time ago – sure, there’s genuine class to Ricardo Goulart, they still have the strongest defence in the league and variety going forwards with the likes of Gao Lin and Zheng Long, but this correspondent doesn’t see Guangzhou outclass sides with the frequency or intensity of a couple of years ago.
Prediction and reality check
Shenhua oddly have a better record away against Hengda than they do at Hongkou; a quite unusual statistical quirk in the home-friendly CSL. There have been a couple of notable fighting 2-2 draws in recent years, with last season’s comeback capped by that unforgettable slower-than-glue-sinking-through-treacle equalizer from Avraam Papadopoulos.
Presumably Manzano slots Zhang Lu straight in to replace the suspended Lv, and leaves the still-misfiring Demba Ba to lead the line – a task the big Senegalese should be well suited to in a game where Shenhua will need to be lethal on the counter in order to take anything away from Tianhe. Whether it’s Bi or Li at center-back, and Geng or Qiu between the sticks, the men at the back for the boys in blue are going to be kept busy throughout by a side with nothing to focus on other than ruthless local dominance and avoiding a repeat of last-season’s close-run title race.
Although Shenhua might just be better suited to playing against big-pedigree sides who might not defend deep or press intently for the full 90 minutes, NTN can only see one winner here – Evergrande have been scoring a lot of goals lately, and will put the visitors to the sword here. 3-1 home win and not too many nerves for the hosts.
Shenhua in 2016 according to North Terrace News:
P 6 W 3 D 1 L 2 GF 9 GA 7 GD +2 Pts 10
Shenhua in 2016 according to the CSL table:
P 6 W 2 D 3 L 1 GF 7 GA 5 GD +2 Pts 9
Steve Crooks is WEF’s Shanghai Shenhua correspondent. Check his North Terrace News column each week for the latest club developments.