North Terrace News: Groundhog day as Shenhua visit Henan in best-of-the-rest six-pointer

Shanghai Shenhua return from the international break right back where they’ve spent the past 18 months – fighting to stay somewhat in sight of the fast-disappearing Champions League sides. Once again Henan Jianye are the unlikely rivals for Shenhua in the race for fifth – is this the footballing equivalent of two bald men fighting over a comb, or can one of these sides launch a sustained assault on the sides trailing behind runaway leaders Guangzhou Evergrande?

It’s been quite the typical month for Shenhua – lurching inconsistently from thrilling the Hongkou crowd with goals galore and showing the mettle to notch up a handy away win, through to some typically uninspired performances against sides they really should be putting away. North Terrace News reviews the month that was, and looks ahead to Saturday evening’s fixture in Zhengzhou.

Liaoning Whowin – Shanghai Shenhua (Saturday May 7th)

Shenhua started a series of winnable-looking fixtures with a trip to the north-east to take on a side short on both class and form. NTN predicted a typically frustrating 1-1 draw; fans were instead treated to a performance even more limp and insipid than Shenhua’s general away form. 0-0, with nil flattering both sides.

Shanghai Shenhua – Qingdao Jonoon (Wednesday May 16th)

Ah, the romance of the cup. There’s nothing quite like a knockout competition which is pre-seeded and pre-drawn all the way through to the final, to studiously try and avoid any upsets and see just how far Shenhua need to go before inevitably being taken out over two legs by Jiangsu Sainty Suning yet again.

For all their travails against weaker opposition in the CSL, Shenhua have proved pretty ruthless at taking care of second-tier sides in the cup (yes, that does specify second-tier. We don’t talk about Dali). For the second year in a row, Shenhua were matched up with Qingdao Jonoon; for some reason the Shandong side elected to switch this match to Hongkou, and were rewarded by being on the receiving end of a five-nil shellacking, with even Obafemi Martins seeing significant gametime for the first time this year. NTN predicted a still-comfortable three-one win, clearly not aware of the attacking threat being unleashed at Hongkou. Your correspondent is unable to attend this fixture due to a business trip, and begins reflecting on the number of five-goal wins he has missed over the years.

Shanghai Shenhua – Guangzhou R&F (Sunday May 16th)

Undoubtedly Shenhua’s performance and result of the season; this game came with R&F finding some form, and looking like their shrewd close-season appointment of Dragan Stojkovic – a manager with a history of success in Japan with Nagoya – was exactly the kind of inspired move Shenhua should have made in the winter. NTN couldn’t see the home side getting anything more than a point from this fixture, tipping a 1-1 scoreline.

The home side however had other ideas – they are relentless for much of the first half and genuinely unlucky to go into the break honors even, with a goalkeeping rick in the wet from Li Shuai handing R&F an equalizer after Lv Zheng’s early opener. Shenhua’s midfield quality is simply too much for their visitors, however – Lv, Cao and Gio Moreno cause havoc and all get on the scoresheet, with Fredy Guarin pulling the strings from deep. As Guangzhou attempt to get back into the game, first Ba and then his replacement Obafemi Martins score textbook breakaway goals — a five-one win over an on-song team, and Gregorio Manzano got his tactics spot-on.

Your correspondent is unable to attend this fixture due to a wedding, and seriously considers self-banning from Hongkou for the greater good of the Shenhua cause. This match also sees Shenhua begin to develop a defensive crisis – Li Yunqiu is taken off with what transpires to be a cruciate injury, and Li Jianbin gets himself suspended with a needless second yellow – both ‘tackles’ could easily have seen a straight red. Li is castigated on social media by everyone from his better half to the fans, and with Bi Jinhao still on the treatment table and Kim Ki-hee struggling for fitness too, Shenhua will need to turn once again to Xiong Fei and Tao Jin.

Chongqing Lifan – Shanghai Shenhua (Sunday May 22nd)

In the context of a side short on defenders, Shenhua’s more cautious approach to this game is perhaps not the worst idea Manzano has had. Fans spoiled on a couple of five-goal thrillers are left frustrated after expecting more entertainment, but the Hongkou side come away from Chongqing with a hard-earned one-nil win – captain Moreno forcing an own-goal with perhaps the only piece of quality and skill displayed by either side during a turgid 90 minutes. Still, the result’s the thing, and that fight for an ACL spot might just be on again.

Shanghai Shenhua – Tianjin Teda (Friday May 27th)

Although Tianjin are once again putting together a better-than-expected season given their squad on paper, this should have been so straightforward for Shenhua – keep the momentum from recent wins, attack more in front of a baying home crowd, and keep chasing the leading pack. NTN plumped for a 3-1 win with minimum fuss here. Fans were instead treated to a classic example of Shenhua’s Jekyll-and-Hyde nature – the home side shot themselves in the foot by twice going behind, and allowing their opponents to drop the tempo of the game with play-acting and time-wasting once ahead. Goals from Ba and Kim – with two more assists for the increasingly-prominent Guarin – saved a draw, but this 2-2 has to go down as two points dropped rather than one gained.

Your correspondent is unable to attend this fixture due to a holiday, and is presumably now allowed back into Hongkou at least.

Groundhog Day Again

So once again Shenhua find themselves battling the increasingly-impressive Henan for fifth spot in the CSL. A side with Shenhua’s attacking threat – they boast the league’s top scorer in Ba – would hope to be closer to the Asian Champions League spots than they are right now, but the Hongkou side’s continuing tendency to shoot themselves in the foot has seen them end the last month in pretty much the same place they started it; to quote NTN‘s preview of the Liaoning match:
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.
Despite some green shoots, those horror performances against Liaoning and Tianjin see Shenhua exactly where they were before, and some ways behind where they should be.

Prediction & Reality Check

Henan are never a pushover at home, and are one of the form sides in the CSL – their only recent defeat coming in a seven-goal thriller against second-placed Hebei – little shame there. If anything, the home side should be marginal favorites for this one given their strong form and ability to grind out results. NTN has a feeling this will be yet another almost-but-not-quite showing from Shenhua, however – they’ve not won in Zhengzhou since 2011, and will cause the home side problems while having to settle for a 1-1 draw. Keep an eye out for the possible return of Bi Jinhao; Li Jianbin remained benched against Tianjin following his indiscretions, and hopefully Shenhua won’t need to rely on both Xiong Fei and Tao Jin for too much longer.

Shenhua in 2016 according to North Terrace News:

P 11   W 5   D 3   L 3   GF 17   GA 14   GD +3   Pts 18

Shenhua in 2016 according to the CSL table:

P 11   W 4   D 5   L 2   GF 16   GA 10   GD +6   Pts 17

Author: Steve Crooks

Steve is WEF’s Shanghai Shenhua correspondent, having followed the side since moving to Shanghai in 2010.

Exiled from the Victorian town idyll of Feethams along with his childhood football team, Steve can now be found enjoying/enduring matchdays on Hongkou’s North Terrace along with the rest of the (in)famous Shenhua Element Crew.

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