Returning from the long trip to Yanbian with tails between their legs, Shanghai Shenhua need to regroup quickly with two season-defining games at Hongkou: a CFA Cup quarter final first leg and the Shanghai Derby.
Punishment in the north-east
The season’s longest trip came at a tricky time for Shenhua and their packed July schedule – Gregorio Manzano needed to decide whether to rest key players ahead of crucial upcoming games, or twist the knife and risk tiring his stars in an attempt to keep pace with a faint Asian Champions League place hunt. In the end, Shenhua came away with the worst of all worlds – a misfiring performance, embarrassing defeat, and sapping ninety minutes in the afternoon heat before a delay-hit flight back.
Shenhua did probably shade the first half – Demba Ba missing a gilt-edged early chance, and being denied a solid-looking penalty shout. Worse was to follow after the break however, with Shenhua struggling to get going and then falling behind to an extremely debatable penalty call, with Kim Ki-Hee appearing to win the ball cleanly from Gambian forward Steve before Nikola Petkovic slammed the resulting kick home to send into ecstasy a home support who 18 months previously had been looking forward to League Two football in this far-flung outpost.
Embarrassment was heaped on misery as Shenhua could barely string two passes together in response – the lackluster Fredy Guarin once again the worst culprit – and salt was rubbed in the wound when veteran keeper Li Shuai completely missed the ball attempting to play sweeper-keeper and gave substitute Kim Seung-Dae an empty net to roll into.
Cup priorities as Quanjian roll into town
Shenhua face a familiar assignment – taking on a League One side deep into the cup, with the underdogs having a promotion campaign to focus on and potentially taking the knockout competition less seriously. Shenhua made heavy work of seeing off Beijing BG in last year’s semis – a side which, it must be noted, saw off Manzano’s famed China experience, tactics and motivational ability by unceremoniously dumping his Guoan side out at this stage last year.
Shenhua’s priorities should be clear – the cup is now their only way to get into continental football next year, and both they and Manzano have some serious ghosts to exorcise in this competition.
After a shaky start, big-spending Tianjin Quanjian have begun to get back into the promotion race with blistering form under new coach Fabio Cannavaro, coming into this match on a hot winning streak. Featuring big-money signings such as Brazilian league-winning midfielder Jadson and Sun Ke, Quanjian are in the thick of a very hotly contested promotion battle – just three points covering the top five teams in the race for just two spots in next season’s top flight. Traditionally promotion-chasing sides tend to prioritize the league over their unlikely cup run prospects at this point – while Quanjian may have the players to give a stuttering Shenhua a game (particularly in Tianjin), whether they save their resources for upcoming promotion battles remains to be seen.
Local pride at stake on Sunday
Last season saw the modern Shanghai Derby escalate to the next level, with traditional local power Shenhua clashing with new-money Shanghai International Port Group in table-topping clashes and a pulsating winner-takes-all cup shootout. There’s less at stake competition-wise for this latest local get-together – Shenhua’s rotten away form leaves them mired in upper-mid-table, while the visiting shipping conglomerate have failed to mount a second title challenge despite keeping their squad together and adding proven chunky Brazilian goal scoring quality in first Elkeson and now Hulk. The latter made an immediate impact in his home debut, scoring the first in a 5-0 rout of Henan at Shanghai Stadium, only to go off with a nasty-looking knee injury. With no confirmation on his fitness at the time of going to press, NTN can only hope that Hulk recovers – a victory over one’s local rivals can’t really feel as sweet if their key dangerman is unavailable, a fact which Shanghai International Port Group surely appreciate following last season’s controversial post-hoc suspension decision of Demba Ba for this fixture following an upgrade of the yellow card issued by the referee down at Tianhe the previous week.
Shanghai International Port Group will come into Sunday’s Hongkou clash slightly fresher, having been eliminated early from the domestic cup. They remain in with a chance of chasing the top 3 spot needed to compete in next year’s ACL, so have more at stake than just local pride.
Local pride, though, is the key thing at stake here, and always will be – with Shenhua and their fanbase out to reinforce their credentials as Shanghai’s football club, and upstarts Shanghai International Port Group continuing to make big flashy moves in an attempt to establish their name. Honors ended even last time out, with a surprisingly edgy Shanghai International Port Group side being let off the ropes by a missed Demba Ba penalty when 1-0 in Shanghai Stadium before coming back to snatch a draw. Emotions will run high on Sunday as China’s premiere intracity rivalry kicks off again, with the side handling any nerves or pressure the best likely to come out on top.
Predictions and reality check
In an odd way, the cup game against a lower-league side is quite possibly the more important game – if Manzano treats it as such and doesn’t shuffle his pack too much (hardly a tactic for which he is known) then expect Shenhua to bounce back and put Quanjian to the sword – 3-0 and one foot firmly planted in the semi finals where an opportunity for vengeance against Jiangsu surely waits.
The Shanghai Derby is a harder game to call – 2016-vintage Shanghai International Port Group are less reliable than last year’s side, and Hongkou had been an unhappy hunting ground for much of their short history. Shenhua might be tired from their recent schedule however, and their forward line will be led by either a pedigree signing with a pricetag to justify, or a jilted international forward with a point to prove. The home crowd will be out in full force and can really make a difference, but their side might just run out of legs and have to settle for a 1-1 here.
Shenhua in 2016 according to North Terrace News:
P 17 W 8 D 5 L 4 GF 25 GA 19 GD +6 Pts 29
Shenhua in 2016 according to the CSL table:
P 17 W 6 D 7 L 4 GF 27 GA 17 GD +10 Pts 25