Shanghai Shenhua return to action after the two-week international break with the visit to Hongkou of last year’s surprise package Shijiazhuang Ever Bright. Can Gregorio Manzano lead his side to victory at the third time of asking and belatedly get 2016 up and running for the blues?
Early-season international breaks always rankle – after the long close-season, fans and their sides alike just want to dive straight back the deep end with into club football and see all those hopes and fears for the new term play out on the pitch. A two-week international break after only two rounds of league games is particularly galling. For Shenhua, we’re a month into the 2016 CSL season without really knowing how much better – or worse – this year’s incarnation of the side is, with the first two games offering up two very different but nevertheless nervy and rusty stop-start 1-1 draws. Manzano’s men now enter a run of games in which they will aim to build fluency and momentum and kick-start their campaign.
Big name issues
Whisper it, but might there be a problem with Demba Ba? The Senegalese hitman made an instant impact after joining mid-2015, with his goals firing Shenhua to big victories in the China Derby and their run to the CFA Cup final, but the explosive big games were interspersed with quieter fixtures where the big African looked, shall we say, less interested or involved.
Despite there being a number of issues with the side’s attacking play – a desperately out-of-touch Gio Moreno, two wingers who can’t cross, and an overall lack of tempo – the simple fact is that had Ba put away any of the presentable chances which came his way in both the season-opener against Yanbian and the Shanghai Derby (let alone his horrific penalty miss when given the opportunity to bury a flailing Shanghai International Port Group side), Shenhua would be sitting much prettier on two wins from two right now.
Moreno himself has – that wonderful improvised back-header at Shanghai Stadium aside – possibly been Shenhua’s worst player in 2016 thus far. Consistently playing himself into trouble he can’t get out of, carelessly slapping crossfield balls out of play, and wasting promising openings, Moreno has had a couple of the very worst ‘bad Gio’ days seen in his lengthy Shenhua career.
Rumors – borne out by some inexplicable selection calls over the years – that Moreno’s contract stipulated that he must always be on the pitch regardless of how poor his form have finally been quashed by Manzano twice removing his captain from the fray in displeasure at his wasteful shenanigans – proving that, while the jury may still be out on his abilities as a coach or tactician, at least the Spaniard appears to have more backbone than either Francis Gillot or Sergio Batista before him.
Not quite solid yet
Qin Sheng and Kim Ki-hee have settled straight into the side and look like the top-quality spine-of-the team signings that they were expected to be. Kim’s defensive partner Bi Jinhao has looked a little shakier initially – there is clearly talent there, but there is also a very large transfer fee and relative inexperience playing as a center-half (particularly in a back four) which may take some time to work through. Shenhua’s defensive unit will need time to gel, but the foundations are there for a solid back-line – the stodgy attacking play is likely more of a priority for Manzano to remedy. Concerns remain about the need for signing Li Shuai, however. Surely the oldest-looking man ever to play professional sports (no way is he 33. No way. NTN knows pensioners who look more sprightly than Li), the former Guangzhou Evergrande back-up has looked like nothing more than a like-for-like replacement of Geng Xiaofeng thus far – fundamentally a competent keeper, but far from inspiring on crosses, and never quite looking more than one minute away from a calamitous rick to let the opposition into the game.
Shijiazhuang clash a barometer for Shenhua
Sunday’s visitors to Hongkou were one of the surprise packages of 2015 – having sneaked promotion by a hair’s breadth, the northern side took comfortably to life in the top flight and finished in the top half, never in any real danger of being dragged into the relegation scrap. ‘Ever Bright’ may be something of a misnomer for a side whose strength lies largely in solid, functional teamwork bolstered by the classic CSL transfer policy of a top-drawer Korean center-back and dangerous African striker; Cho Yong-hung keeping things together at the back and Jacob Mulenga responsible for almost half of Shijiazhuang’s 2015 goals.
The visitors have had a flat start to 2016 themselves – home games against likely-to-struggle Liaoning and Hangzhou ending 0-1 and 1-0 respectively – but are exactly the type of mid-table side Shenhua need to be beating consistently if they are to have any ambitions of improving on last season’s finish. And it wouldn’t hurt to shut out Mao Jianqing again; he’s scored enough goals against his former club for one revenge-fuelled peripatetic career.
Prediction and reality check
Shenhua should be favorites to get their season up and running here; how comfortably they can do so really depends on whether Manzano can coax better performances from his out-of-form forwards (Moreno, Ba, and two-good-games-a-season Cao Yunding) or change things up and introduce the dynamic Obafemi Martins from the start, and give either Zhang Lu or the forgotten Gao Di a run-out. With one or two in-form forwards on the pitch Shenhua ought to have too much for their visitors – Shijiazhuang will likely be content to sit deep and spring Mulenga on the break, with Shenhua needing to show more initiative and penetration in possession than their somewhat disjointed showings thus far.
NTN fancies Shenhua to come back from the break fired up and nick an early goal to settle nerves both on the pitch and in the stands – a relatively routine 2-0 home win to get the campaign back on track.
Shenhua in 2016 according to North Terrace News:
P 2 W 1 D 0 L 1 GF 4 GA 3 GD +1 Pts 3
Shenhua in 2016 according to the CSL table:
P 2 W 0 D 2 L 0 GF 2 GA 2 GD +0 Pts 2
Steve Crooks is WEF’s Shanghai Shenhua correspondent. Check his North Terrace News column each week for the latest club developments.