Shanghai Shenhua made a great start to their fixture-packed July with two big home wins last week; the longest away trip of the season to a struggling Yanbian is a chance to draw breath and maintain form ahead of the biggest week of the season thus far with two more blockbuster Hongkou fixtures coming up. Will Shenhua’s dangermen get up to more mischief up in Yanji, or keep their powder dry for an upcoming quarter-final and Shanghai Derby?
The week that was: Looking like a real football team
Shenhua continued their solid home form with two important wins – firstly eliminating the listing Shandong Luneng to book a cup quarter-final berth, and then just about keeping in touch with the Asian Champions League qualification race with a routine 3-0 win against relegation strugglers Changchun Yatai.
Two clean sheets, and four good goals from four different goalscorers – despite some occasional impatience and sluggish first-half displays, Shenhua at Hongkou are starting to look almost like a genuinely organized football team at times – they try to attack with a combination of patience and penetration, and crucially don’t lose their heads when early chances go begging or the opposition digs in and tries to frustrate – qualities which certain national teams eliminated early from the European Championships would do well to learn.
Even the substitutions are coming up golden at home for Gregorio Manzano – with Obafemi Martins finally unleashed from the start alongside Demba Ba against Shandong, the 4-4-2 was misfiring for much of the game, and benched captain Gio Moreno was thus introduced to break the deadlock in the only way he knows how – why even think about bringing the ball down or laying it off when you can set yourself up for a trademark overhead kick into the top corner?
Martins’ time came again against Changchun however – with Shenhua punishing a tiring side who had held out bravely until Li Jianbin broke the deadlock with a John Terry-esque remarkably good weak-foot finish for a center-back (trademark pending), Martins was introduced for his trademark ten minutes and did not disappoint, chesting down a Ba flick-on to smash home and add some welcome gloss to the scoreline right before the full-time whistle blew. Ba himself had scored a top-drawer goal to put the match beyond the visitors – a scarcely-believable defence-splitting lofted fourty-yard pass from Xiong Fei (yes, the same Xiong Fei who drilled a regulation five-yard pass straight into touch earlier in the game) was taken down easily by the big Senegalese, who smartly waited for the keeper to commit before rolling the ball home before an elated North Terrace.
The week to come: Eyes on bigger prizes?
This week marks a little downtime in Shenhua’s fixture-packed July – 2016 marks the first time in the club’s history they have played eight games in July. That’s a lot for a league where twice-weekly fixtures are a rarity, and the summer Shanghai climate is hardly conducive to swift recovery. There’s a must-win two-legged cup quarter final on the horizon, along with two dare-not-lose home games against noisy nouveau-riche neighbors in Shanghai International Port Group and Jiangsu
Sainty Suning. It’s easy to imagine Manzano treating this as an opportunity to rotate a little and rest some of his regular starters – particularly with Lv Zheng reportedly coming back from injury, and don’t-believe-it-til-they’re-in-the-squad returns for serial treatment room inhabitants Bi Jinhao and Deng Zuoxiang. The Spaniard thus has a near-full squad to pick from; first-choice right back Li Yunqiu may be the only enforced absentee come Saturday.
Preview and reality check
The trip to Yanbian is in itself a noteworthy game for Shenhua – they haven’t played in Yanji in the league for over a decade, so expect a large contingent of away fans to make the 3000km round-trip to the North Korean border. Yanbian are of course China League One’s 2015 answer to Leicester City, with their fairytale appearing to continue with a strong early start to the season – they could and indeed should have won their season-opener at Hongkou, with a very dubious late Ba penalty giving a flat Shenhua a scarcely-deserved point.
While the quality of their team spirit, fervent fanbase and non-Chinese-Koreans is not to be doubted, NTN still disagrees with the majority of Wild East Football pundits and sees this fairytale coming to an end sooner rather than later. It’s not a given that Yanbian will go down, but it’s easy to see reality catching up with them after a giddy eighteen-month ride straight upwards – the CSL’s most northeastern side is in something of a tailspin of late, with a much-needed win at Shijiazhuang being followed straight up by an abject home defeat to Hangzhou Greentown – any side which concedes four at home to this Hangzhou vintage is likely to be scrabbling around right at the foot of the table alongside last week’s visitors come the final reckoning.
That said, Yanbian’s home record is mostly solid, and Shenhua tend to suffer worst than most teams when playing away – even before considering the clear temptation to experiment with the side in a relatively meaningless game ahead of a bumper week. If Shenhua put out a full-strength and fully-focused side, they should have enough to comfortably see off their hosts who may be starting to anxiously look over their shoulders as vertigo catches up with them – it’s easy to see the game going the way of the season opener however, with Shenhua losing some of their recent rhythm and huffing and puffing their way to a 1-1 draw and keeping their higher gears saved for the crucial couple of weeks to come.
Shenhua in 2016 according to North Terrace News:
P 16 W 8 D 4 L 4 GF 24 GA 18 GD +6 Pts 28
Shenhua in 2016 according to the CSL table:
P 16 W 6 D 7 L 3 GF 27 GA 15 GD +12 Pts 25