Last Saturday’s marquee fixture saw Shanghai Shenhua seal a rousing and deserved victory over Jiangsu, hot on the heels of sending Shanghai International Port Group home from Hongkou with tails wagging between legs. Sitting in third spot coming into the home stretch, NTN uses the upcoming break to reflect on Shenhua’s hopes of qualifying for the Asian Champions League.
Big performance in the big game
All eyes were on Hongkou last Saturday – China was watching second take on fourth in a fixture boiling with local rivalry and previewing a nuclear upcoming two-legged cup semi-final, and international audiences in the UK were getting their first (legal) taste of live CSL action. The powers-that-be couldn’t have picked a better game to showcase the essence of the CSL – the Hongkou crowd were a sea of blue and noise from start to finish in China’s best football stadium, with the South Terrace unveiling two jaw-dropping tifos paying homeage to the recovering Demba Ba.
Shenhua continued their recent good form, dominating possession and firing in almost thirty shots on the Jiangsu goal. It was the visitors who somehow went into the break in the lead however, the in-form Roger Martinez having converted both his side’s half-chances in the first 45, with Shenhua goalkeeper Li Shui looking a little slow off the mark in both cases.
Despite their usual post-half-time slumber, the home side snapped back into life from the 60th minute onwards and came out deserving victors in a grandstand finale – time again Qin Sheng’s probing passing found Cao Yunding or Lv Zheng free out wide, with Cao slipping in Obafemi Martins to make it 2-2 with a neat finish, and setting the stage for Fredy Guarin – having earlier converted his second nerveless penalty in two home ties – to slam home the winner with the help of a kind deflection. Yet another blockbuster come-from behind victory for a side rediscovering their DNA as ‘comeback kings’.
Sitting pretty with nine to go?
With Guangzhou Evergrande’s customary league title looking a formality already, the race for the remaining ACL spots couldn’t be closer – an ailing Jiangsu are on 38 points, with Shenhua’s superior head-to-head form seeing them sitting in third on 34 points, joined by Shanghai International Port Group and Hebei. Even Beijing Guoan – back on 27 but with three games in hand – may have a say in a race where four or five teams try to squeeze into two continental qualification places.
Runners and riders
Fixture congestion might be an issue for Guoan – and points on the board tend to mean more than fixtures on paper this late into the season – and Shenhua and Jiangsu also have their mouthwatering CFA Cup semi-final providing some midweek distraction in upcoming weeks, and Shanghai International Port Group face a tricky ACL double-header with Jeonbuk Motors to determine once and for all east Asian football’s corporate transportation king.
The sides’ run-ins are roughly similar on paper – second through fourth must all still play both Evergrande and Guoan at home – with Jiangsu and Shenhua perhaps having the better of the fixtures otherwise.Shenhua are the only side not to play any of their rivals for the ACL spots, and should feel some comfort that their rivals will be taking points off one another; Shanghai International Port Group head to Nanjing to face Suning in Round 27, before welcoming Hebei to Shanghai Stadium for what might just be a winner-takes-all fixture on the last day of the season.
Causes for optimism…
Shenhua’s fixtures are mostly very winnable. Evergrande at home may as well be written off – they always win at Hongkou – but otherwise Liaoning, Chongqing, Henan and Guoan really should be 12 points in the bag given the blues’ imperious home form this year.
The away fixtures – R&F, Tianjin, Hangzhou and Changchun – are also relatively kind, featuring only one top-half side – and that being one who Shenhua blew away 5-1 in the Hongkou fixture earlier this year. A side serious about ACL qualification should be looking at a minimum of two wins from these fixtures, and that might well be enough in the race for third this year.
Their rivals in this race are also far from pedigree – Jiangsu escaped a real hiding on the balance of play last Saturday through a combination of Martinez’s finishing, Shenhua’s wastefulness, and some plain good luck – rarely can a side have been hammered 3-2 so comprehensively, and rarely has a visiting side looked less like a top-two candidate. Shanghai International Port Group may have a short history, but the chapter on big-game bottling features heavily in that particular pamphlet, and memories of last season’s title-race capitulation – in spite of the goodwill of officials across the land, which once again come to the fore in their recent 3-3 at R&F – must be weighing strongly on the red quarter of Shanghai. Hebei’s form is also tailing off, and mounting a sustained push during the run-in may be a step too far for the newly-promoted side, for all their transfer market riches and wisdom.
Oba Martins is doing an able job of leading the line, and Cao Yunding has been on fire for the past few weeks, finally appearing to come good on his promise. Gio Moreno is reveling in his freedom as a hybrid traditional #9 and #10 at once, and even the much-maligned Fredy Guarin and Lv Zheng put in quality second-half performances to get their side over the line against Jiangsu last time out.
… and for concern
Shenhua have only two problems, but they’re both fairly severe – this is a side which seemingly just can’t string together 90 minutes of coherent football outside of Shanghai, and which is one more injury or suspension away from disaster. Any side in Asia would miss Demba Ba, but the attacking cupboard is remarkably bare – Zhang Lu when fit offers an option on the wing, but might be used at right-back to patch up a defence already missing Li Yunqiu and Li Jianbin. Shenhua still have a first XI which is up to the task in the absence of their first-choice center-forward, right-back and center-half, but one or two more absences – particularly if Moreno, Martins or Cao were unavailable – would push them over the edge into mid-table mediocrity.
Prediction and Reality Check
Whisper it – and remember that it’s the hope that hurts you the hardest, not the disappointment – but NTN is going to stick its neck out and say that Shenhua might just make it. Sure, the side doesn’t have a plan B, is stretched to breaking point, and suffers a collective neurosis outside the Outer Ring Road, but their plan A has been almost unstoppable in the big games they’ve won lately. The league is Shenhua’s big chance for continental football next year too – avenging 2014 and 2015 against Jiangsu in the CFA cup simply must be done, but Evergrande and their desire for a domestic double to atone for their early ACL exit must be odds-on favorites at this point.
There’s a lot which could go wrong – one more injury, a couple more limp away performances, a galling failure to restore natural order in the China Derby – but NTN believes. The Shenhua frontline is just that little bit too fluent right now, and it’s easy to see the side riding the crest of their current wave and doing it for Demba. For this correspondent’s money, the CSL top 4 finish in the order they are right now – with Beijing Guoan possibly edging out Shanghai International Port Group in fourth.
Shenhua in 2016 according to North Terrace News:
P 21 W 9 D 7 L 5 GF 32 GA 26 GD +6 Pts 34
Shenhua in 2016 according to the CSL table:
P 21 W 9 D 7 L 5 GF 34 GA 22 GD +12 Pts 34