Fresh from yet another big home win, Shenhua keep up their fight on league and cup fronts this week, with all eyes Wednesday on whether the home side can finally banish their cup demons against Jiangsu, before welcoming Liaoning on Saturday for a more straightforward CSL assignment.
Shanghai International Port Group; Jiangsu Suning; Hebei China Fortune; Guangzhou R&F. You can now, finally, add Guangzhou Evergrande to that list – Saturday evening gone saw Shenhua chalk up a first-ever victory over the champions-elect, and add their name to the long list of top-half sides who’ve been put to the sword at Hongkou.
Obafemi Martins continues to thrive in the spotlight as Shenhua’s first-choice forward in Demba Ba’s absence. The electrified Nigerian was simply too much for the Evergrande defence to live with, scoring a couple of genuinely high-caliber goals to bookmark the first half and ensure the home side went into the break 2-1 up despite Gao Lin having drawn his side level by blasting the ball through the hapless Li Shuai at the veteran keeper’s near post.
It stayed 2-1 through to the end. While Shenhua may have undoubtedly ridden their luck at times – some of the finishing from Hengda was slapdash, and the woodwork came to Li’s rescue on a couple of occasions – their record in front of their home fans remains spectacular in recent months, and it may be a little churlish to criticise a side for seeing off the best team in the country despite missing half of their first-choice defence along with the best striker in the league and also their key defensive midfielder. For a patched-up side, Shenhua held their own pretty well in the face of the Evergrande storm. And in addition to their great mid-season timing in finding a lucky charm from somewhere, Shenhua have laid down some great individual and team performances in the face of quality opposition of late – they stand third in the table on merit right now.
Lessons from history
Warning: the blue three-quarters of Shanghai might want to read this part through their fingers, from behind the sofa, or simply not at all.
October 1st, 2014: after a mediocre league campaign, Shenhua come up against Jiangsu Sainty in the cup semi-finals, with the chance to make the final and win some silverware to redeem their year. Shenhua kick off the first leg at Hongkou, and within the first half hour have completely capitulated to find themselves 2-0 down and all but out of the tie already. Despite a late rally, they head to Nanjing for the formality of a 3-0 hiding to complete the humiliation and cost coach Sergio Batista his job.
November 29th, 2015: after an up-and-down league campaign, Shenhua come into the two-legged cup final against Sainty as favorites, with mid-season signings Demba Ba and Mo Sissoko propelling the side’s momentum. A drab 0-0 in Nanjing is followed by one of the most nervy, disjointed 90 minutes of football this correspondent has witnessed, with all the home side’s big players going missing. Extra time is little better, but with penalties looming the near-inevitable sucker punch leaves Shenhua on the floor, and coach Francis Gillot out of a job as Jiangsu go on to to glory and a big-money corporate buyout and spending spree.
Shenhua must begin to suffer a collective mental breakdown when they see their path to CFA Cup glory blocked by the same obstacle each year; the Nanjing side are the only team to have beaten Shenhua in the CFA cup since part-timers Dali unforgettably embarrassed Shenhua at Hongkou back at the side’s lowest ebb in 2013.
August 17th, 2016: Third time lucky?
For all Jiangsu’s big spending and high-pedigree recent imports, you can make a case for Shenhua being marginal favorites in this semi-final – but then again, that’s what we said in 2014 and in last year’s final. A stirring performance in that unforgettable 3-2 Shenhua win in late July should have more relevance on this game than the demons of years past, yet those memories must haunt much of Shenhua’s squad and their long-suffering support. An already injury-ravaged defence looks likely to be missing Bai Jiajun after the effervescent left-back joined the casualty list of key players undone by the Hongkou turf, and after Li Shuai’s latest howler, Gregorio Manzano must be contemplating whether to give Geng Xiaofeng another chance. A patched-up defence and rick-prone goalkeeper must have Roger Martinez licking his lips – the chunky young Colombian’s goal-poaching was the only thing which kept his side close to Shenhua in the recent league fixture.
And yet, for all the players this paper-thin squad keeps losing, Shenhua always seem to find a way at Hongkou, buoyed by the most fervent atmosphere the grand stadium has heard in years. Tao Jin and Xiong Fei are hardly household names, but a run of games in the team has seen the defensive back-ups play with a bit more composure alongside the more illustrious Bai and Kim Ki-hee. Martins is on fire, and Gio Moreno has a knack for the spectacular in big derby games – with their horrendous track record in Nanjing, Shenhua will need to go for a decent home win to have something to defend in the second leg.
Liaoning game much more than a footnote
In NTN‘s view, the league should actually be more of a priority than the cup for Shenhua; while the chance to avenge those demons of past failures against a local rival and to push for silverware should never be ignored, it’s difficult to see Shenhua getting the better of Evergrande over 180 minutes home and away should the side in red come out on top of their own Cantonese derby semi-final as expected.
Shenhua are sitting third in the league and have a decent chance to extend their lead over Shanghai International Port Group with a routine assignment this coming weekend; much like recent seasons, 2016’s vintage is not a memorable Liaoning Whowin side, and Shenhua’s dire 0-0 up in the reverse fixture earlier this season was particularly forgettable. In common with their hosts, Liaoning don’t travel particularly well – assuming Shenhua manage not to lose yet more players during the semi-final, they should play their strongest possible XI in this game to keep on the front foot in that race for Asian Champions League qualification.
Predictions and Reality Check
Yet again it’s going to be a nail-biter in the cup; both sides are in fine goal-scoring form, but struggling to shut teams out at the other end. A high-scoring game would suit the away side more, but NTN can also see Jiangsu keeping things very cagey and feeling strong about the second leg as long as they’re not blown away at Hongkou. 2-1 to Shenhua will go some way towards consigning the last two years’ cup collapses to history.
Liaoning is every bit as important a game – Shenhua have in many ways (cliche-alert!) eight cup finals remaining in the league – and the home side will continue their solid form with the minimum of fuss, taking this one 3-1.
Shenhua in 2016 according to North Terrace News:
P 22 W 9 D 7 L 6 GF 32 GA 29 GD +3 Pts 34
Shenhua in 2016 according to the CSL table:
P 22 W 10 D 7 L 5 GF 36 GA 23 GD +13 Pts 37
Ground: Hongkou Football Stadium, Hongkou District, Shanghai
Capacity: 35,000 (26,000 for football)
Honours: Chinese top-tier league champions: 1995
Chinese top-tier league runners-up: 1996, 1997, 1998, 2000, 2001, 2005, 2006, 2008
Chinese FA Cup winners: 1998
Chinese FA Cup runners up: 1995, 1997, 2015