Stumbling once again into the last-chance saloon, Shanghai Shenhua face off against in-form high-rollers Hebei Wednesday evening before welcoming perennial bogey team Hangzhou Greentown to Hongkou on Sunday. A weakened side can ill afford any more slip-ups – what are their prospects for two tricky fixtures?
Groundhog Day Again, Only Worse
A disappointing 1-1 draw at Henan might have been the most predictable score in the CSL last weekend, but the manner of the disappointment might just have shocked even the most cynical Shenhua observer. Rather than huffing and puffing and struggling to beat a side they should be superiror to on paper, the away team were instead pretty much played off the park for much of the 90 minutes. Henan should consider themselves unlucky not to have won on the balance of play and chances – the Shenhua rearguard had no answer for the aerial threat of goalscorer Javier Patino and the Brazilian Ivo, and the midfield came off distinctly second best through much of the game. Shenhua struggled to create much in the way of chances beyond an early Demba Ba back-header from a long-throw which put them ahead; the second time this season the most Route One of tactics has worked, and surely the kind of champagne football for which Spanish coach Gregorio Manzano was appointed. Tiki-taka eat your heart out.
To add insult to injury, Shenhua ended the game down to ten men, with captain Gio Moreno handed a second yellow card for the heinous crime of running near to a defender who fell over in his own penalty box.
Rearranged Hebei Trip Bad Timing for Shenhua
Shenhua somewhat comfortably held-off the newly-monied Hebei China Fortune FC (the polar opposite of unfortunate Liaoning Whowin in the appropriately-named-northeastern-team stakes) in the Hongkou leg of this fixture earlier in the season, with Turkish defender Ersan Gulum managing the impressive feat of conceding an own-goal and a penalty in the first ten minutes. The fortunes of the two sides have diverged somewhat since then, however – with Shenhua fast running out of steam and with an increasing injury and suspension list, Wednesday night’s hosts are on a rich vein of form – they’ve discovered their scoring touch and won their last four games straight, with Shenhua reject Dong Xuesheng sitting behind only Ba in the top-scorer stakes.
Along with so many other CSL sides, the simplicity of Hebei’s transfer policy has made Shenhua look at best confused and at worst corrupt. Get in a defensive stalwart (Du Wei) and a couple of decent-caliber domestic forwards (Dong and Jiang Ning), reinforce this with a no-nonsense international spine (Gulum, Stephane M’Bia) and add some star quality with players who can take a player or three out of the game (Gervinho, Lavezzi, and pub trivia’s Gael Kakuta). While Lavezzi will miss this one due to being on international duty in the USA representing Argentina in South America’s prestigious and historical tournament (NTN really wishes that was a typo, but no. Modern football, eh?), the absense pales into comparison with Shenhua missing both of their mercurial Colombian playmakers due to suspension – in addition to Moreno’s red, Fredy Guarin accumulated another yellow up in Zhengzhou.
In addition, Shenhua go into this game with right-back Li Yunqiu still a long-term absentee, and the dynamic left-back Bai Jiajun likely to miss the match due to injury also. Bi Jinhao remains MIA, leaving Shenhua facing the league’s in-form second-place side with only one of their first-choice back four and neither of their key creative midfielders. Originally slated for August, the rescheduling of this fixture to allow for a national team camp in the push for World Cup qualification success couldn’t have come at a worse time for the Hongkou side.
Following two games on the road, Shenhua will return to Hongkou Sunday evening to take on perennial noisy neighbors Hangzhou Greentown. Yet again Hangzhou have a weak and callow squad which looks in serious danger of going down; yet again they will fancy themselves to nick points from their bigger local rivals.
Last April seems like such a long time ago – those were the days when, in Hangzhou’s last visit to Hongkou, Tim Cahill opened his Shenhua account by slamming home a penalty in front of the North Terrace and proceeding to leap the Hongkou hoardings before indulging in a spot of corner-flag boxing. These days Cahill is representing Hangzhou, of course – following yet another piece of transfer mastery in which Shenhua extended the veteran Australian’s contract at the end of the season, only to pay it off in order to make their midfield that bit more Colombian.
Hangzhou are in dire straits this year – joint-bottom on points, and likely to face a season-long struggle. While Shenhua are clear favorites for this one, despite their absentees and patchy form, and propensity to underperform when they’re expected to win easily, there should be almost no doubt that the corner flags of Hongkou should brace themselves for a bit of Cahill’s revenge come Sunday night.
Prediction & Reality Check
Shenhua could be in for a bit of trouble on Wednesday night – Hebei are hitting form and will want to keep the pressure up on Guangzhou Evergrande following the leaders’ surprise setback against Shijiazhuang last weekend. Short of defenders and creativity in the midfield, it’s going to be a long evening in the north-east – Hebei to run out comfortable 3-0 victors.
Sunday night will be another story – you can stake your house on Cahill scoring*, but Shenhua will pul out one of their classic meaningless feelgood victories to leave them, once again, about six points behind the champions’ league spots. Temptingly close enough that a really solid run of form could earn them a shot at getting back into the big time, but ultimately short of expectations. 2-1 Shenhua.
Shenhua in 2016 according to North Terrace News:
P 12 W 5 D 4 L 3 GF 18 GA 15 GD +3 Pts 19
Shenhua in 2016 according to the CSL table:
P 12 W 4 D 6 L 2 GF 17 GA 11 GD +6 Pts 18
*Note: North Terrace News does not own a house, and does not condone speculative gambling.
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