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North Terrace News: Bittersweet Shenhua head north having won derby but lost Demba

Another pulsating Shanghai derby unfortunately made international headlines for all the wrong reasons, with talismanic forward Demba Ba suffering a sickening leg-break. Having rallied to put their noisy neighbours firmly back in their place, can Shenhua keep their siege mentality going and record a couple of away results to remain in touch with the ACL chase?

Top dogs

Sunday evening’s ninth edition of this current Shanghai derby began as a slow-burner more notable for a military show of strength around the stadium than the nervy first-half display on the pitch, only to burst into life in the second half. Shenhua went behind to a top-draw finish from Wu Lei; a genuine top-drawer talent who has developed the unfortunate but slightly amusing habit of scoring belting goals at Hongkou which end up as mere footnotes to the final score.

Shenhua were huffing and puffing but in little danger of blowing the house down until the high drama really began, with top-scorer Demba Ba racing through on goal only to land badly under a clumsy challenge from Sun Xiang and a helping hand from a Hongkou divot or two, ending up with his leg at a truly nauseating angle and needing anesthetic before being stretchered from the pitch. While fans and players alike possibly saw their entire season slipping away in the crumpled frame of their talismanic line-leader, the immediate sense of injustice and anger fuelled the entire stadium into a concerted twenty-minute push which first saw former Dongya prodigy Cao Yunding smash home an equalizer from Zhang Lu’s center, followed by truly frenetic scenes with ten minutes of injury time being added; a mark of the severity of Ba’s misfortune.

With Shanghai International Port Group desperately holding on in front of a raucous North Terrace which seemed to be – football cliche alert – sucking the ball towards the goal, the hapless Wang Jiajie tangled with Gio Moreno and tripped the Colombian captain inside the area – having near pulled his shirt from his back already – leaving referee Zhou Gang no choice other than to dismiss the Shanghai International Port Group defender and award a 97th minute penalty to Shenhua. Going baldly against the football logic that you never let a man having a bad game take a penalty, Fredy Guarin – after 96 minutes of shinned miscontrols and haphazard returning possession to any red shirt nearby – showed nerves of steel to step up amidst the drama, wait what felt like an eternity, and slam a cool-as-you-like spot kick past Yan Junlin to win the derby; not a bad way to open one’s Shenhua account. There was still enough time remaining for Bai Jiajun to pick up his customary needless sending-off; this one coming as his second in a week, having also picked up a daft second yellow in the closing minutes of Shenhua’s 4-0 midweek walkover against Tianjin Quanjian reserves in the cup.

Ooh aah Demba Ba

While much of the immediate reaction to Ba’s injury – a genuinely horrific break, suffered late in his career by one of the game’s more respected and popular mild-mannered giants – has verged on the maudlin and brought out the worst in social media and modern fan culture, there is no denying that the big Senegalese’s absence will hurt Shenhua in a way which few other top CSL clubs would suffer. 27 goals in 36 games tells its own story – Ba at Shenhua has been little short of a revelation, and genuinely unplayable at times – thinking back to last year’s China Derby at Hongkou and the big Senegalese’s one-handed evisceration of an entire Beijing Guoan backline will leave Shenhua fans with goosebumps for years to come.

This is not a eulogy for Ba’s career; it’s too early to know that either way, although NTN counts itself genuinely privileged to have watched Demba’s prowess up close; but more a chance to see how the side can shape themselves up for the challenges to come – there is a CFA Cup to be won, an unlikely Asian Champions League qualification spot to chase, and the small matter of Jiangsu Sainty Suning and  Beijing Guoan to send home from Hongkou with their tails between their legs in the manner of a cowed Shanghai International Port Group this weekend just gone.

Martins Time

For all those – surely including the man himself – who might have spent much of this season wondering just why Obafemi Martins left an all-star, fan-favorite role leading the Seattle Sounders to come and sit on the Hongkou bench until the 80th minute every week, now is the time to seize the moment. Although they didn’t always click as a front two in the rare occasions (generally against second-tier opposition in the cup), Ba and Martins are strikers with opposing but complementary skillsets; where Ba provides the leggy, graceful ballet-dance of a velvet sledgehammer, Martins is all short, sharp stocky shuttle runs, chest-control, prodigious springy leaps and ferocious zero-backlift shots. The Nigerian is now surely Shenhua’s de facto line-leader for the remainder of the campaign, and has an important role to play – he linked play well against Shanghai International Port Group when coming on, although interestingly he often appeared to be sitting in the hole to pounce on knockdowns from Gio Moreno; just as the false 9 craze is dying out all over Europe, Shenhua might just be playing a bona-fide South American number 10 as the big man at the point of their attack. And oddly enough, it might just work.

Look North

With all those above them (short of champions-elect Guangzhou Evergrande) losing their heads, Shenhua have the chance to push for third and continental qualification; a pursuit somewhat fatally undermined by their home form being championship-standard, but their away results being relegation form. This week is make of break for that unlikely tilt at third – Shenhua first head to a Shijiazhuang side in freefall, with Thursday’s hosts having recently dispatched with popular manager Yasen Petrov and shuffled their foreign player pack in a desperate attempt to stave off relegation as they suffer a true second-season-syndrome slump. Shijiazhuang games are rarely pretty – they mass the defence and try to hit on the counter – although they may fancy taking a risk or two against a Shenhua side missing key players at both ends of the pitch due to injury (Ba, Li Yunqiu, Bi Jinhao) and suspension (Bai).

Then it’s off to Jinan on Sunday and Felix Magath’s almost-resurgent Shandong Luneng, freshly boasting the league’s latest prestige journeyman signings from European leagues in Graziano Pelle and Papiss Cisse. Shenhua traditionally don’t fare well in Jinan – although that’s true of most cities outside Shanghai.

Prediction and reality check

Despite losing the best striker in the league – and this coming two days after the close of the transfer window in which they had for once not made any moves – Shenhua still have a first XI good enough to mix it with anyone not named Guangzhou Evergrande. The problem is going to come with injuries and suspensions – already missing a couple of full-backs for the trip to Shijiazhuang, Shenhua are potentially already toppling off this paper-thin squad depth tightrope.

Despite coming into this on decent form and facing up against two sides in all kinds of trouble, Shenhua are likely to struggle here – as they always seem to away from home. In true bittersweet fashion, don’t be surprised to see the feelgood vibes continue with a hard fought 2-1 away win in Shijiazhuang be followed up by a hope-crushing 3-1 Shandong victory to leave Shenhua with the cup as their main focus, and praying on the continued fitness of a 45 31-year old Nigerian forward for the next couple of months.

Shenhua in 2016 according to North Terrace News:

P 18   W 8   D 6   L 4   GF 26  GA 20   GD +6   Pts 30

Shenhua in 2016 according to the CSL table:

P 18   W 7   D 7   L 4   GF 29   GA 18   GD +11   Pts 28

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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