For the third time in as many years, Shenhua reach the halfway point of the season with little more than pride to play for in the league and the CFA Cup representing their sole hope of glory, silverware and continental qualification. Felix Magath steers an ailing Shandong into town Wednesday night – can Shenhua make the quarter-finals against the CSL’s surprise bottom-dwellers?
Capital Punishment Once Again
Saturday evening saw Shenhua extend their miserable run at Beijing Guoan, going down 2-1 at Gongti in a game in which – despite some spirited passages of play from the visitors – the better side over 90 minutes won. Despite coming into the match behind their guests in the table and in patchier form, Guoan were snapping into tackles and stretching the Shenhua backline with diagonal balls and wide runs from the off; a cynical observer might have noted that the men in green had reserved their best and most fluent display of the season for the visit of their arch-rivals.
Shenhua suffered badly from the simultaneous absence of their best two defensive midfielders, with Qin Sheng suspended and Wang Yun out injured. Wang Shouting isn’t the worst third-choice in the CSL, but his advancing years and lack of first-term football left him a painful half-yard off the pace throughout – paired alongside an off-color Fredy Guarin, Wang was frequently bypassed and left watching Guoan get in behind.
In spite of this – and with Guoan missing a number of presentable chances from crosses zipped low across the six-yard box – Shenhua had the better chances to take the lead. The away end at a surprisingly quiet Gongti (Guoan fans, it appears, literally do find voice only when leading, as the popular terracy ditty goes) was jubilant when Li Jianbin headed his side in front, only for Ma Ning (who else?) to disallow the goal due to Li’s unconventional hand position. It wasn’t quite Maradona, but the big center-back really could have headed the ball with better technique to leave the officials with no choice.
Following a quite unbelievable failure to shoot when clear of the defence from Guarin, Shenhua wilted like the Colombian’s confidence – Zhang Xizhe twice in two minutes punished a sleepwalking defence, and even a late goal from Demba Ba following good work from substitute Obafemi Martins was too little, too late for Shenhua.
For a man accustomed to failure in the biggest games at Gongti, returning coach Gregorio Manzano yet again got his tactics wrong by making substitutions too little, too late on Saturday. It’s evident that – for all their individual talent – Shenhua’s best-balanced starting XI does not contain both their Columbians. Guarin has been notably off-color of late following a couple of strong performances, and should be a strong candidate for dropping. The mercurial Gio Moreno is essentially the same player as ever – desperate to be the center of attention, sliding into ridiculous challenges, sending Hollywood balls to team-mate and touchline alike, but at least trying to make a difference. In the view of NTN, Guarin should be tried and found guilty of bottling in the highest degree following his rabbit-in-the-headlights encounter with Yang Zhi over the weekend.
From one of the most valuable and valued players in Major League Soccer with Seattle Sounders, surely Martins must have been expecting more than being wheeled out like clockwork in the 75th-80th minute for the briefest of cameos every week – often already after the game has been either won or lost. The perky Nigerian just gets on with the job of stretching the opposition defence and hammering his no-backlift shots at goal in any case, and has rarely let the side down when coming on – his slick work to make Ba’s consolation goes alongside some brutally clinical finishes against R&F and Hangzhou of late. Surely it should be time for Shenhua’s coach to let the shackles come free – this week sees the CSL’s bottom side visit for a must-win cup game, and Shenhua then pay host to the league’s worst defence as Changchun come to town on Sunday.
Cup or Bust
So here we are again – halfway through the season, Shenhua have already been beaten at their longest-standing rivals and find themselves off the pace in the league, having flattered to deceive and disappointed in equal measures. Asian Champions League qualification must be the goal, and sitting seven points behind Jiangsu
Sainty Suning in third leaves Shenhua painfully off the pace. Once again it’s all about the cup – and this round’s draw could hardly have been kinder*. Following their slightly ridiculous late title tilt last year – summed up by a last-gasp 2-1 win at Hongkou after being played off the park for 89 minutes – Shandong have managed to equally ridiculously come through their ACL group stage while sitting rock bottom of the league and replacing their coach with a man best known for a string of semi-recent failures, a harsh disciplinarian outlook, and highly suspect lactose-heavy medical treatments. Yes, enter Felix Magath – the man who runs his squad through walls and then eschews ice baths for cheese-based treatments. With their high-pedigree visitors in real disarray, Shenhua must go into this one as favorites – if only to set up yet more semi-final or final-based disappointment in future.
*technically this round’s opponent in a romance-draining pre-drawn tournament bracket
Prediction and Reality Check
Flattering to deceive once more, Shenhua will win both of their games this week following their most recent big setback. Shandong are a mess, and must surely be prioritising both a CSL survival act and unlikely ACL hail-mary ahead of the cup at this point. 2-1 Shenhua – the visitors can still call on a lot of top-drawer Brazilian and domestic talent, even with Magath chopping and changing, and Shenhua rarely make big games easy for themselves.
Changchun can then take up the Hangzhou role by rolling into town as another relegation-threatened side for Shenhua to put to the sword – despite some tired legs, class will show through here with Shenhua winning 3-0 to consolidate their grip on a meaningless fifth place and slightly embarrassing local tussle with Shanghai International Port Group to be best-of-the-rest.
Shenhua in 2016 according to North Terrace News:
P 15 W 7 D 4 L 4 GF 21 GA 18 GD +3 Pts 25
Shenhua in 2016 according to the CSL table:
P 15 W 5 D 7 L 3 GF 24 GA 15 GD +9 Pts 22
Ground: Hongkou Football Stadium, Hongkou District, Shanghai
Capacity: 35,000 (26,000 for football)
Honours: Chinese top-tier league champions: 1995
Chinese top-tier league runners-up: 1996, 1997, 1998, 2000, 2001, 2005, 2006, 2008
Chinese FA Cup winners: 1998
Chinese FA Cup runners up: 1995, 1997, 2015