From the deep south to the far north – Shanghai Shenhua head from last weekend’s defeat down in Guangzhou up to Shenyang this weekend to take on the most ironically named club in the league – Liaoning Whowin.
Great goals, shame about the game
It was something of an odd contest at a soaking-wet Tianhe last weekend, with neither Evergrande nor Shenhua really finding much fluency for prolonged periods. The hosts were just about value for their 2-1 win – Alan opening his home account with a couple of top-quality finishes against an obliging defence – as they did turn the screw well and dominate their visitors for the fifteen minutes or so prior to the opener.
Shenhua fought back after half-time with spirit, and Demba Ba lashed home a rising shot to make it 1-1. With the momentum firmly on their side, Shenhua proceeded to shoot themselves in the foot by overreaching, leaving the home side free to sweep home the winner on the counter. While there’s no real shame in losing to a side with Evergrande’s pedigree, the manner of falling behind was a little galling for Shenhua; for once the side could have benefitted from slowing things down a little rather than rushing straight into the sucker punch.
Plan A: Not quite working still
Gio Moreno (a pre-game injury scare) put in another decent first-half performance, and Demba Ba manager to get a little more involved at times along with taking his equalizer well, but the big beasts of Shenhua’s squad are still not fully risen from their slumber. There’s a solid spine to this team still, but a lack of genuine pace and penetration came back to bite again – once Evergrande were ahead for the second time, Shenhua struggled to really make much of an impression, with Obafemi Martins seeing little of the ball in his now-regular ten-minute cameo to replace Moreno. Li Jianbin continued to look mostly solid at center-back, and Zhang Lu didn’t disgrace himself – it’s unlikely though that the #8 will have made enough of an impact to displace the returning-from-suspension Lv Zheng or even Cao Yunding in Gregorio Manzano’s favored side.
Time for 4-4-2?
One up top made sense against a strong side who were going to see more of the ball than Shenhua. Visiting a side who’re struggling to either keep clean sheets or consistently trouble the scorers at the other end, the stage could be set for Ba and Martins to partner up from the off. While this may be wishful thinking given the coach’s natural conservatism, there’s something to be said for starting with a more attacking line-up. The longer Shenhua stay in a game at 0-0, the likelier their opponents feel to nick a late goal – it’s perhaps no coincidence that Shenhua’s two wins this year both came off the back of very early goals setting the stage for the side to attack with more swagger and remain a threat on the counter.
Could this be the season that the perennially-unfancied Liaoning side drop down to China League One? Their squad once again looks short of genuine quality on paper, and even the ever-classy James Chamanga surely can’t keep scoring CSL goals forever. A shaky opening to the season has seen some unconvincing performances and just a solitary win at Shijiazhuang on the opening weekend – Liaoning come into this game on the back of a two-nil defeat at Hebei, and they’re currently sitting alongside Changchun, Yanbian and Beijing Guoan in that cluster of relegation-threatened northern clubs at the foot of the CSL table.
The hosts have failed to score in their last two outings, and their home record in 2016 stands at two draws and a defeat. However Liaoning’s last home win came against Shenhua at the tail end of 2015, and the Hongkou side’s record in general is pretty average against Whowin – it’s ten years (!) since their last league win in Liaoning, and even at Hongkou Shenhua have a patchy record against a side they should fancy themselves to be beating regularly.
Prediction and reality check
If Shenhua have any hope of paying more than idle lip-service to the notion of challenging for a Champions League spot, then they need to start doing two things – picking up more points away from home, and consistently beating sides below them in the table. This is a great opportunity to do both, and a game which will say as much about the Hongkou side’s prospects as any of their recent clashes with top-pedigree sides. Win here and they’re clinging onto the coat-tails of the top three; anything else and there’s already a clear gap forming and little more to aim for than the dubious pleasure of being best-of-the-rest in 5th or 6th.
It’s a game against a side short on both class and form, and yet it’s difficult to look past Shenhua’s long tradition of dreadful performances away from home and failure to press home the advantage against inferior opposition. History dictates it will be scrappy and sedate here – a 1-1 draw providing the perfect cure for that Saturday afternoon insomnia, and doing neither side’s prospects any great favors.
Shenhua in 2016 according to North Terrace News:
P 7 W 3 D 1 L 3 GF 10 GA 10 GD +0 Pts 10
Shenhua in 2016 according to the CSL table:
P 7 W 2 D 3 L 2 GF 8 GA 7 GD +1 Pts 9
Steve Crooks is WEF’s Shanghai Shenhua correspondent. Check his North Terrace News column each week for the latest club developments.