Guangzhou Taobao Evergrande roll into town on Saturday night as Shanghai Shenhua begin their league and cup run-in with the toughest fixture remaining. Can the hosts extend their Hongkou winning form to get a first-ever home win against Evergrande, or will they lose early ground in the race for third?
The beginning of the end
Following the enforced league break for a national team training camp – a week off being the perfect way to maintain momentum and interest in a sizzling domestic league, just as the European season is about to kick-off and the Olympics are going through the gears – this is where the business end of the season kicks off. Shenhua have three back-to-back home fixtures, as rare Saturday kick-offs against Evergrande and Liaoning sandwich next Wednesday’s blockbuster cup semi-final first leg against Jiangsu Suning. Just over a week from now, Shenhua should have a much clearer idea of just how big the run-in to 2016 could be.
Champions-elect with one eye off the ball?
Guangzhou could be forgiven for coasting right about now; this is typically the point in the season where, especially in the absence of continental competition, runaway league leaders can begin to stumble a little. With Jiangsu falling back into the chasing pack, Evergrande have little to focus on other than pride in the league, with their own upcoming cup semi-final against city rivals R&F dominating their own horizon – revenge is writ large over that fixture, with a recent league derby upset to make up for, and a domestic double being the minimum acceptable following their remarkable early elimination from the Asian Champions League. A turgid midweek 0-0 at Gongti saw them make up their game in hand without losing too much energy, but might the Cantonese side be coming to Hongkou a little short of sharpness?
Ever since Guangzhou Evergrande became Guangzhou Evergrande, they have a flawless record at Hongkou – winning five times on the bounce in spite of some spirited performances from Shenhua. It’s possible that a team who genuinely have a go at them – and the novelty of playing in an actual football stadium rather than converted athletics venue – inspires the high-caliber players in the Evergrande squad, who certainly seem to show up at Hongkou with a quality performance and some cracking goals every time they visit.
Problems at the back
With right-back Li Yunqiu still potentially recovering from his own cruciate injury, former Evergrande stopper Li Jianbin is the latest Shenhua defender to succumb to the same fate. Li has been much-improved this season, getting back to his 2013 form, and will be sorely missed – particularly given that Shenhua’s creaking second-choice defence will be missing the CSL’s most effective defensive shield, with league intercept leader Qin Sheng being suspended for this one. With Geng Xiaofeng potentially set to keep his place ahead of the hooked-at-half-time Li Shuai, he’ll undoubtedly be kept very busy behind a defence which might feature both Tao Jin and Xiong Fei, screened by either an off-the-pace Wang Shouting or potentially too-lightweight combination of the effervescent Wang Yun and inconsistent Fredy Guarin. Pre-game nightmares for all of a blue persuasion, then.
The curious case of Bi Jinhao
The man who proves that Europe doesn’t quite have a stranglehold on big-money moves where the transfer fee outstrips actual accomplishments thus far, Bi Jinhao might be back in contention here. A mediocre center forward who had one stellar breakthrough season after being converted at center-back for Henan, Bi won a huge-money move to one of the league’s traditional top sides and has struggled to find his feet ever since. Looking shaky at first was quite understandable given he was playing in a defensive unit in which only left-back Bai Jiajun was at the club the previous season, Bi’s injury problems began at the worst possible time for the big man, with Li Jianbin slotting into the side as they began to gel and put a run of form together. Despite injury issues both up front and at the back with Demba Ba and Li Jianbin missing, Bi seems set for a slightly unconvincing substitute role during the run-in – not trusted as a safe enough pair of feet alongside Kim Ki-hee, and not dynamic enough to be anything other than a last-ditch lump-it-and-hope option to challenge or complement Oba Martins up top.
Bi still has time on his side at 25, but given all that Shenhua have to play for this season, and their paper-thin squad, then 2016’s most prestigious domestic signing could do with stepping up to the plate and delivering on that undoubted potential sooner rather than later.
Prediction and Reality Check
Shenhua always, always fall short in the most disappointing way against Evergrande – giving the game their all, and falling just short against the country’s pedigree side before being ruthlessly picked apart. Unless, of course, they have a creaking Greek-Australian secret weapon to call on for a super-slow-motion late equalizer, that is (NTN runs a side-line in “I was there when Papa scored” T-shirts). This season’s game at Tianhe proved as much – in a patchy game illuminated by three quality goals, Brazilian forward Alan restored the hosts’ lead just moments after Demba Ba had put Shenhua back in contention.
While Shenhua have been a genuinely exciting side to watch going forward in recent weeks, it’s going to be difficult to watch this depleted backline against Hengda without peering through your fingers – and even though it’s actually only happened twice, it feels like this fixture always ends 0-3 (0-1, 0-2 and 1-2, in case you were wondering), and yet another 0-3 away win is easy to picture here. It needn’t be a fatal blow to Shenhua’s chances however, given the remainder of their run-in – avoiding a serious shellacking and any further injuries or suspensions (particularly with cult anti-hero Ma Ning the man with the whistle and itchy trigger-finger here) might just be enough.
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
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