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North Terrace News: Shenhua stumble to Tianjin with season in danger of slipping away

After a week which saw them crash out of the cup and throw away a 2-0 lead in a home banker, a listing Shanghai Shenhua need to right themselves immediately as the league run-in resumes.

Deja vu all over again

In a week which could have come straight out of the script of 2014 or 2015, Shenhua made it painfully clear that Gregorio Manzano’s 2016 vintage have still not learned the lessons which undid both Sergio Batista and Francis Gillot’s sides in the past. Yet another meek surrender in Nanjing saw Shenhua crash out of the CFA Cup in a two-legged tie at the business end of the season against Jiangsu Sainty Suning, and fluff their lines awfully in a league game against bottom-half opponents.

Friday evening’s mid-autumn festival game against Chongqing was perhaps the more galling of the week’s results – the damage against Jiangsu had really been done already in the first leg. While the fixture presented a potential banana skin in Shenhua’s run-in despite their opponents’ lowly standings, the Hongkou side appeared to have done all the hard work by going into the break with a 2-0 lead thanks to Cao Yunding and Gio Moreno. Proper football sides simply do not throw away 2-0 late-season half-time leads at home against bang average bottom-half sides with nothing to play for. It simply doesn’t happen; there is a basic professionalism, coherence, leadership and tactical awareness which any side pushing for continental qualification simply must have. Manzano’s long career of mediocrity and recent CSL expertise of bottling winnable games in the run-in came to the fore here, however – the home side suffered from a stage fright which appeared to have been banished for much of 2016, and there was no guidance, adaptation or leadership to check an eminently-avoidable collapse; three too-late like-for-like substitutions and a lot of passive pacing around is apparently what a top-drawer CSL manager’s salary gets you these days.

Shenhua followed this up by hoisting the white flag before the second leg of the CFA Cup semi-final even kicked off in Nanjing. While chasing a 2-3 home defeat is a tricky second leg task, starting with your third-choice goalkeeper and none of your first-choice forward line or big-money international acquisitions outside of a center-half is hardly the way to do so. Again, despite some too-little too-late substitutions, Shenhua were utterly toothless and ineffectual, not even registering a shot in the first half, before Wu Xi put them out of their misery with the inevitable second-half winner.

Glass half-full?

The one piece of good news from the midweek trauma in Nanjing is that Shenhua’s chances of qualifying for the Asian Champions League through the league itself have been boosted; with top-two Suning and Evergrande clashing in the final, the final qualification spot earmarked for cup winners will go to the fourth-placed side in the league. Rather than coming out on top in their tricky-looking local rivalry with Shanghai International Port Group, Shenhua may just need to ensure they finish ahead of Hebei and Beijing Guoan; simply winning their two remaining home fixtures against Henan and Guoan will be enough to see Shenhua home here – embarassing potential away defeats to lowly Tianjin and Hangzhou could be absorbed.

On the one hand, Shenhua should almost be odds-on favorites to wrap up their season with the pre-season target of ACL qualification assured; they remain undefeated in their last 5 CSL fixtures. On the other hand, this is a side who’ve lost a number of crucial players to injury and are now playing without the confidence and vim which saw them through a much tricker run of fixtures earlier in the campaign; their last five fixtures including the cup have seen only one win – a nerve-jangling 2-1 come-from-behind win against the truly awful Liaoning Whowin. Shenhua may have lost their form and nerve right when it matters most.

Shenhua’s destiny is entirely within their own hands; their run-in remains slightly kinder than Shanghai International Port Group’s, and beating two upper-mid-table sides at home is all that stands between them and a guaranteed fourth spot. As seasoned Hongkou watchers know, however, Shenhua are at their very worst when expectations are highest and they wear the mantle of favorites very nervously indeed – across six games in two-legged semi-finals and finals against Jiangsu in the past three years – in each of which Shenhua probably had the better side and form on paper, and in two of three years in which they’d just thoroughly dismantled Jiangsu at home in a league game previously – Shenhua’s record is a frankly embarassing 0-2, 0-3, 0-0, 0-1, 2-3, 0-1.

Prediction & reality check

Looking at this from an outsider’s perspective, one would see a third-placed side with everything to play for – with the majority of their starters fresh having been rested in midweek – set to redeem themselves with a visit to a lower-half side in patchy form but safe from relegation and with nothing to play for. It should be straightforward, and that’s where the problems begin – Shenhua repeatedly fluff their lines as favorites, and flatter to deceive; and that’s before factoring in an away record which traditionally sees results nosedive south the further north from Hongkou the side plays.

It’s a tricky game to call – Cao, Moreno and Obafemi Martins will be setting foot on the Tianjin pitch with a lot to prove, and are capable of carrying this side a long way on their own – particularly if Qin Sheng and an almost-first-choice defence can keep things tight in front of the increasingly unreliable Li Shuai, but flattering to deceive before falling away is a specialty of both recent Shenhua sides and their manager’s career. An obdurate away win shouldn’t be beyond them, but don’t be surprised to see Shenhua settle for a draw in a nervy, disjointed fixture – 1-1 sounds about right here.

Shenhua in 2016 according to North Terrace News:
P 25   W 11   D 8   L 6   GF 40   GA 33   GD +7   Pts 41

Shenhua in 2016 according to the CSL table:
P 25   W 11   D 9   L 5   GF 41   GA 27   GD +14   Pts 42

Steve hosts the Chinese Football Podcast, having joined the WEF team as correspondent for Shanghai Shenhua, the side he has followed since moving to Shanghai in 2010. Exiled from the Victorian town-centre idyll of Feethams along with his childhood football team, Steve spent many an (un)happy year on Hongkou's North Terrace along with the Shenhua Element Crew and Blue Devils before relocating to Sydney from where he continues to follow the Chinese game from afar.

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