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North Terrace News: Stumbling Shenhua welcome Hebei

Yet another sobering lesson from Jiangsu Sainty Suning casts Shenhua’s early-season fumbles in an unflattering light. Sunday evening sees the CSL’s other big-spending, undefeated side roll into town – will Hebei continue the Hongkou side’s woes?

Same old Jiangsu, always winning

It was the same old story once again in the Nanjing Olympic Stadium last Saturday – in a continuation of a thoroughly depressing one-sided rivalry which is becoming so predictable that this time the match report was written before the game. There really isn’t a lot to be said that the casual observer wouldn’t have picked up on from watching any of the last few years’ non-dead-rubber matches between the two: Shenhua played once again with a hesitant lack of fluency, showing such a lack of potency that even Pele the player and Pele the blue-pill-pusher combined might not have been able to solve their problems. Credit where it’s due, Dan Petrescu knows exactly how to set a side up against Shenhua, and while Jiangsu were inconsistent at times in the match themselves, they applied the pressure when it mattered and took their chances clinically.

Big-name bottlers

While Kim Ki-Hee and Fredy Guarin can’t be criticised for a lack of energy or application, the same can’t be said of Shenhua’s two marquee foreign players further forwards. Gio Moreno played maybe his best 45 minutes of football for a while in the first half, threading some slick passes beyond the home defence, but the second half was yet another Moreno horror show, with the lanky #10 wasting possession repeatedly and failing to raise his side when under the cosh. CSL teams have finally figured out Moreno this year, it would seem – force him onto a right foot which is barely fit for standing on, and Gio has nowhere to go. As for Demba Ba in 2016, the charitable verdict would be that he’s looking a little ring-rusty; the less charitable sentiment that he’s simply phoning it in.

No Plan B

It’s not only Moreno; the CSL might just have figured out Shenhua in general. In fairness, the surprise might be that it’s taken this long, since it’s an awfully long time since the Hongkou side fielded anything other than a flat, slow 4-2-3-1. Cut out the long ball over the top to Ba and you’re halfway to nullifying them; just sit deep, force them out wide (where neither Cao nor Lv are consistently good enough) and wait for the floated cross into a packed box. There’s no swift interchange of passes, no give-and-go, no runners from deep and no long-range shots. When all their attacking players are on form and click, Shenhua can still put any side to the sword at this level – the problem is that as soon as one or two of them dip, none of the side’s recent coaches seem to have any backup plans. Aside from swatting aside a desperately poor Shijiazhuang side, Shenhua have scored 2 goals in 4 games — those goals coming from a penalty kick and a long throw. Forget criticisms of the at-times-shaky defence, it’s the forward line which the Hongkou faithful should realy be worrying about.

A new guest

This Sunday marks the first-ever fixture between the marvelously-named Hebei China Fortune and Shenhua. Hebei made headlines across the football world for their big-money signings of Gervinho and Ezequiel Lavezzi (signing wingers. Imagine that.) and also count defensive midfield rock Stephane M’Bia and former Chelsea “prodigy” Gael Kakuta amongst their ranks. With their international signings more comfortable out wide than in the #9 role, this big-money side might well once again look to former Shenhua striker Dong Xuesheng to lead the line this weekend.

Li Tie’s side should have enough about them to comfortably finish in the comfortable half of the CSL, and have made quite an interesting start to top-flight life, winning both their away fixtures but drawing twice at home. A well-drilled side with a muscular defensive presence and genuine pace and trickery on the break – exactly what the doctor didn’t order for Shenhua, or perhaps a chance for the side to show what they learned from their failure in Nanjing last week.

Prediction and reality check

The Nanjing game has cast an unfavorable reflection over Shenhua’s work thus far this season – rather than seeing a side slowly beginning to gel under a new manager, the 2-0 defeat instead served to highlight their lack of penetration or width and proneness to the occasional costly lapse at the back.

Expect both of those to continue to be on show on Sunday, with Gervinho in particular likely to cause a hernia every time he runs at Bi Jinhao. If the man himself doesn’t know where he’s going or what he’s going to do with the ball, how can an inexperienced center-half with a big transfer fee hanging over his head be expected to read one step ahead?

With no news on the availability of Obafemi Martins, Shenhua are almost certain to start with the same side which began the match in Nanjing. It’s odd that a side who finished only a couple of places outside ACL qualification and came within an extra-time goal of winning the cup last year might start a home game against the second-best team from last season’s League One as anything other than clear favorites, but that’s not how this feels – on current form Hebei are perhaps the more likely to nick it, but ultimately NTN is predicting a nervy 1-1 which will be a much more satisfying result for the visitors than the hosts.

Shenhua in 2016 according to North Terrace News:

P 5   W 3   D 0   L 2   GF 8   GA 6   GD +2   Pts 9

Shenhua in 2016 according to the CSL table:

P 5   W 1   D 3   L 1   GF 5   GA 5   GD +0   Pts 6

Steve Crooks is WEF’s Shanghai Shenhua correspondent. Check his North Terrace News column each week for the latest club developments.

Steve hosts the Chinese Football Podcast, having joined the WEF team as correspondent for Shanghai Shenhua, the side he has followed since moving to Shanghai in 2010. Exiled from the Victorian town-centre idyll of Feethams along with his childhood football team, Steve spent many an (un)happy year on Hongkou's North Terrace along with the Shenhua Element Crew and Blue Devils before relocating to Sydney from where he continues to follow the Chinese game from afar.

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