It’s Sunday Night Football again at Hongkou this week, with Shanghai Shenhua welcoming a Shandong Luneng side making a disappointing start to 2016. Can the blues put the boot in and kick an old rival while they’re down?
2016 starts here
It’s been an odd start to the CSL season in many ways – the nascent table still looks topsy-turvy, and Shenhua seem to have lost less ground than might be expected in their two 1-1 draws which kicked off the campaign. Finally gelling at the third time of asking, Gregorio Manzano’s side put a suffering Shijiazhuang to the sword last week, coming out on top 3-1 from a game which could just as easily have finished 6-2 in scenes reminiscent of the goal spree against a sorry Shenxin which kicked off 2015.
Many of Shenhua’s more fancied rivals have also stuttered through the first month or so of the campaign – this week’s visitors join Shanghai International Port Group and Beijing Guoan in starting the season in the wrong half of the table; that’s three of last season’s top four struggling for form early in the year (not to mention punch-drunk champions Guangzhou Evergrande’s travails in continental competition). All this means that there’s still everything to play for in terms of early-season jostling, with none of the fancied sides really roaring out of the traps and a number of new signings yet to really mesh into coherent sides in the CSL.
At the center of most of the many good things Shenhua did against Shijiazhuang was a languid Colombian central midfielder with the eye for a Hollywood pass. Rather than their struggling totem Gio Moreno, it was the man in the #13 shirt who announced his arrival in the CSL after a couple of games acclimatizing to his new surroundings. You don’t win the Europa League, play over a hundred times for Inter Milan and start for Colombia at a World Cup without having a pretty serious amount of talent, and Fredy Guarin somewhat ran the show with a range of slick and penetrative passing. Many might choose his raking long assist-to-the-assist for the second goal as a particular standout, but for NTN there’s something particularly delightful about the vision and slide-rule execution of the defence-busting pass for Demba Ba’s hat-trick goal – nine out of ten players at this level just don’t see that opportunity, let alone take it.
There remain question marks about the midfield rebalancing Shenhua did over the transfer window — the energetic Wang Yun and physical and tactical giant of Mo Sissoko were one of the side’s strongest areas in 2015 — which one standout performance against a willing but limited team in a home banker won’t answer – consistency and impact in games against the CSL’s bigger beasts, starting this weekend, will give much more insight into the wisdom of Shenhua’s dealings and just how strongly or otherwise this squad can stack up in 2016.
He scores when he wants…
For all Guarin’s quality, there can only be one man-of-the-match against Shijiazhuang – when your side wins 3-1 and you score all of the goals, you’re entitled to the match ball and (presumably non-alcoholic for a practising Muslim) champagne. Demba Ba opened his account from open play in some style. While it’s possible to argue he could have scored even more, including a second failed penalty in two games, the Senegalese hitman once again proved that when on his game he is far too much for most CSL defences to deal with – the movement, physicality and range of finishing ability were ultimately what won Shenhua the game. If pre-game criticism from NTN wakes Demba up like this, then this columnist would happily be proved wrong week-in week-out over the season.
Shandong another barometer
Having passed the test of putting away a side they should be expected to beat in front of an expectant home crowd – one which traditionally trips them up more frequently than it should, Shenhua now face a second test – just how much have they improved against the league’s better sides? Games between these two old-money CSL powers are more often than not humdingers with plenty of drama – Shenhua should have been out of sight in this match last season, only for their wasteful finishing to come back to bite them with a vengeance, with the Jinan side grabbing a dramatic injury-time winner to breathe life into a title campaign which then faltered the very next week.
It’s undoubtedly a good time to be facing this wounded beast – fresh from the disappointment of finishing third, Shendong upgraded their squad by swapping out one Brazilian coach for another — the incoming Mano Menezes being perhaps the last Brazilian national team manager with any interest in his team actually playing football — and shoring up their backline with the decently-rated Gil. They retain the best goalkeeper in the land and the increasingly rare sight of two genuine domestic goal threats in the porky Wang Yongpo and strapping Yang Xu.
In spite of these upgrades, Luneng have struggled thus far – soundly beaten in Nanjing by everyone’s favorite electronics wholesaler, they also managed to lose soundly to unfancied Hangzhou last weekend, along with a middling start in their AFC Champions League group, scrapping with Japanese champions Sanfrecce Hiroshima to finish runners-up to a rampant Seoul side. The Jinan side might be without both Wang and goalscoring winger Aloisio for this game – while they do possess strength in depth, Luneng haven’t quite hit their groove domestically yet, which is potentially good news for a Shenhua rearguard which still looked flimsy at times against Shijiazhuang, being indebted to Li Shuai for a couple of athletic saves to keep them ahead.
Prediction and reality check
If the same Shenhua side who clicked into action against Shijiazhuang show up – particularly if we see the same visitors who’ve stumbled thus far in 2016 – then there’s a case to fancy the home side here. Shandong have the better XI and deeper squad on paper, but have struggled to get into gear so far – buoyed by finally finding their own feet last week and in front of a positive home crowd, NTN fancies Shenhua to nick this one 2-1 and leave Luneng still searching for the kick-start to their own CSL season.
Shenhua in 2016 according to North Terrace News:
P 3 W 2 D 0 L 1 GF 6 GA 3 GD +3 Pts 6
Shenhua in 2016 according to the CSL table:
P 3 W 1 D 2 L 0 GF 5 GA 3 GD +2 Pts 5
Steve Crooks is WEF’s Shanghai Shenhua correspondent. Check his North Terrace News column each week for the latest club developments.