The return of the CSL for the home stretch sees Shanghai Shenhua visit Guangzhou R&F for Sunday evening’s big game. Can the Hongkou side come out of their toughest remaining fixture and consolidate their position in the race for Asian Champions League qualification?
How can I disappoint you? Let me count the ways…
Although it feels a long time ago (primarily because it was a long time ago, thanks to the international break being extended thanks to an all-important CFA training camp which fully prepared the national side to take one point from two games), Shenhua’s last week of action kicked off with groundhog day once again – Jiangsu
Sainty Suning in a crucial cup tie.
Having previously thrown away this fixture through an awful opening spell in 2013 and a throughly flat two-legged show last year, Shenhua this time succumbed to their paper-thin squad being stretched just slightly too far – already missing their figurehead #9 and a couple of first-choice center-backs, the absence of both fullbacks saw Shenhua’s defence fail to withstand Jiangsu’s probing – Obafemi Martins’ two goals bookmarking a middle of the game in which keeper Li Shuai once again looked over the hill and unable to repel the away side which was being waved through by the stand-ins in front of him.
Although there is a second leg in Nanjing to come in October, and Martins’ last-gasp goal to pull things back to 2-3 gives the Hongkou side a sliver of hope to cling on to, the cup is basically over for Shenhua – a side who have never won a game in Nanjing now need to do so by two clear goals.
Winning while playing badly
A club with a proud tradition of shooting itself in the foot seemed to be heading for another meltdown the weekend after their latest cup surrender – with half-time approaching in a home banker against a bang average Liaoning side, Shenhua were trailing 1-0 to a regulation set-piece and still struggling for fluency. Come the hour, come the man – captain Gio Moreno stepping up to slam a high-caliber finish into the corner and set the side up to lay siege to the visiting side in the second half, with Oba Martins (who else?) once again putting away the late winner which sealed the points for his side. From a bit-part player whose substitute appearances put the gloss on already-finished games, Martins has embraced his return to center stage following the season-ending injury to Demba Ba; there is a case to be made that Shenhua have the two best #9s in the league in their squad.
A golden opportunity
Shenhua are basically in a direct fight with their cross-city rivals at this point – Jiangsu are staying ahead of the chasing pack and perhaps even smelling blood from an ailing Evergrande as the champions-elect limp towards the finish line, and Hebei’s dip in the second half of the season is unlikely to be arrested even by top-drawer managerial appointments. It’s Shenhua vs Shanghai International Port Group for third spot and ACL qualification; with Shanghai International Port group having snatched a last-minute draw against Beijing Guoan on Friday, it’s Shenhua with the momentum here. With six games apiece to go after Sunday – and a slightly more favorable fixture list than their neighbors – Shenhua have the opportunity to open up a four-point gap if they return from Guangzhou with all three points.
A difficult assignment
R&F away is, however, the toughest game Shenhua have left. Although they won this fixture 1-0 in the early throes of their table-topping start to 2015, Shenhua generally don’t travel well – and their opponents are coming into this one on a high, with a solid 2016 season being led by the impressive Dragan Stojkovic, and mid-season signing Eran Zehavi proving nigh-on unplayable. R&F have recently been busy bloodying Evergrande’s noses in their own cup derby, and have racked up an aggregate score of 13-12 in their past five games – including positive results against the ACL-chasing Shanghai International Port Group and Hebei, along with a madcap 5-4 win in Chongqing.
We’ve been here before, however – after a sluggish start, R&F were coming into form when they visited Hongkou back in mid-May, only to be clinically dismantled by a Qin Sheng midfield masterclass and incisive counterattacking football with five different players getting on the scoresheet in a 5-1 win.
Prediction & reality check
Given R&F’s recent freewheeling record – and Shenhua’s quality in attack and threadbare injury-hit defence – don’t expect a 0-0 here. Predicting an away win for Shenhua is always difficult, especially against a side in decent form over the past couple of months – however, the type of counter-attacking play they displayed in that Hongkou win is exactly what Shenhua will need again if they’re to come out on top on Sunday evening. Much will depend on whether Bai Jiajun is fit to return at left-back in place of the unsure Wang Lin; Bai adds energy and quality to both the defence and attack, and much of Shenhua’s struggles in their past couple of games came from having two full-backs who weren’t able to overlap or support the wingers ahead of them.
Shenhua are – cup fixtures aside – making a point of turning up in the big games and getting the job done this year. Provided that the international break has allowed the side to rest up and recuperate, and not caused any loss of focus or momentum, then third spot really is there for the taking – as is a share of the spoils in an entertaining 2-2 draw Sunday night.
Shenhua in 2016 according to North Terrace News:
P 23 W 10 D 7 L 6 GF 35 GA 30 GD +5 Pts 37
Shenhua in 2016 according to the CSL table:
P 23 W 11 D 7 L 5 GF 38 GA 24 GD +14 Pts 40