With an up-and-down week on the road ending on a high, Shanghai Shenhua welcome Jiangsu Suning to town with Asian Champions League qualification still a tantalising possibility, and looking to lay down a marker before once again locking horns at the business end of the CFA Cup. Saturday night at Hongkou sees the big match for CSL Round 21.
Away day blues
Shenhua moved on from their stirring last-gasp derby win against Shanghai International Port Group with a great opportunity to keep the pressure on their noisy neighbors in the hunt for third place with a seemingly-simple away game at Shijiazhuang, a side suffering some severe second-season syndrome and plummeting like a stone. Obafemi Martins gave Shenhua a half-time lead with a close-range finish, seizing his opportunity to step up in the absence of the cruelly-injured Demba Ba and celebrate with a tribute to the big Senegalese.
The wheels fell of dramatically in the second half, though; whatever Gregorio Manzano said to his side in a half-time address must surely never be repeated. Even in the long and storied history of abject performances away from Shanghai, the second 45 minutes in Shijiazhuang eclipsed anything this correspondent has seen – the away side couldn’t even string one pass together, shanking and shinning every ball into touch, and camping nervously in their own six-yard box for the entire half. With the CSL’s second-bottom side given free rein to attack and the space to look like 1970s Brazil, it was Mao Jianqing (who else?) and Yong-Hyung Cho who put Shenhua away, capping a truly disgraceful 45 minutes of football and surely leaving Shenhua with a mountain to climb in their vain quest for ACL qualification.
Flattering to deceive?
From a new low to an unexpected high; Shenhua then somehow walked away from a trip to resurgent Shandong Luneng with all three points for their first win in Jinan in donkey’s years. Once again up at half time – this time due to a delicious long-range strike from returning captain Gio Moreno, a man clearly unimpressed by the side struggling in his absence due to suspension the previous match – Shenhua’s expected capitulation never quite arrived. Graziano Pelle was well-marshalled by Li Jianbin, with the Italian kept so far from the action that his immaculate haircut was untouched by the final whistle, and Papiss Cisse proved an utterly ineffective substitute, wasting the few genuine chances Shandong did create.
While it was far from pretty – and a better side with more in-form strikers may well have made their nervous outlook pay – Shenhua finally won a big away game when it mattered, and might just have recaptured some momentum for the league run-in.
Dates with destiny approach
Wednesday night saw the conclusion of the CFA cup quarter-finals. In Shenhua’s case, progression against Tianjin Quanjian reserves was all-but-decided with that first-leg 4-0 thrashing; rather than trusting in youth, Manzano put out an uninspiring collection of fringe-player senior pros, including at least the rehabilitation of Bi Jinhao. Both sides went through the motions in one of the more uninspired 90 minutes of football witnessed since this year’s Portugal side took a summer break, with Gao Di at the center of what little action there was – scoring one, but then blotting his copybook by winning and awfully missing a penalty.
In a return of one of Chinese football’s current big narratives, Shenhua will once again face Jiangsu in the next round – this week’s league opponents needing extra time to see off Henan Jianye and book a semi-final spot against a side who just can’t seem to beat them over two legs. This weekend’s league game has enough riding on it to begin with – another round in Shenhua’s second rivalry with a big-spending local upstart corporate conglomerate, and the continuation of the unlikely chase for third – without the added spice of preparing for the latest edition of blockbuster two-legged ties which saw Shenhua fall to the Nanjing side with defeats in the Hongkou leg in both the 2014 semis and 2015’s gut-wrenching final.
Cometh the hour, cometh the man?
While the absence of Demba Ba – the league’s top scorer and best striker – is undoubtedly a hammer blow for Shenhua, it may just herald the completion of the return to form of Gio Moreno. The mercurial Colombian clearly has no lack of passion for the blue shirt, but had put in some wayward performances in 2015 as the arrivals of Ba and Mo Sissoko put him somewhat in the shade; does Gio need to be the biggest fish in the pond to thrive?
The arrival of his compatriot Fredy Guarin as some form of comfort blanket or spirit animal (nerves-of-steel penalty aside, Guarin was evidently not bought for his ability to make an impact on the CSL field) seemed to have sparked Gio into some kind of form this year, but in his re-found role as once again the undisputed leader of the team, Moreno put in a classic all-action performance in Jinan – dictating play, hitting crossfield passes, shooting from range, making telescopic sliding tackles, and rolling around and buying fouls and time in a way that nobody else quite can. Moreno will need to put in a series of these vintage performances if Shenhua are to stand a chance in their tough upcoming sequence of games, but you’d not bet against the #10 pulling it off.
Prediction and Reality Check
Shenhua always beat Jiangsu in the league and then fail to see them off in the cup; such is the narrative of the last few years. For every Ba hat-trick, there is a galling and more meaningful extra-time winner in the knockout competition.
Sainty Suning are well-equipped with Ramires, Teixeira and the newly-signed hotshot Roger Martinez, yet Shenhua’s home form is impeccable. Expect goals, drama, and plenty of emotion on both sides – a 2-2 draw doing neither side’s league chances any favors, yet setting up an unmissable cup semi in the coming weeks.
Shenhua in 2016 according to North Terrace News:
P 20 W 9 D 6 L 5 GF 30 GA 24 GD +6 Pts 33
Shenhua in 2016 according to the CSL table:
P 20 W 8 D 7 L 5 GF 31 GA 20 GD +11 Pts 31