Sunday evening in Changchun looks likely to seal a story of so close, and yet so far for Shanghai Shenhua. Fourth place and a cup semi-final appearance have to go down as a decent achievement for the season, but the frustration of letting third place slip – and with it both local bragging rights and a much softer Champions League qualification draw – is still keenly felt right now.
China Derby review: proud, unbowed, but lacking that cutting edge
Shenhua’s players left Hongkou to a heroes’ reception on Wednesday night – not only had they put their old rivals to the sword in the second forty-five minutes and come agonizingly close to retaining their advantage in the race for third, but this was also the home crowd’s opportunity to hail the successes of 2016. In a way, the China Derby was a fitting microcosm of where Shenhua are at right now – after a sluggish start and some scary moments, the home side roared into life after the break and played some attacking high-adrenaline football, only to come up just short. If Obafemi Martins’ legs were that inch or two longer – or if Yang Zhi’s reactions just a split-second slower – then Shenhua might have nicked the win in the second half, but they ultimately ran out of gas and ideas as the exertations of two games in four days caught up with a thin, injury-ravaged squad missing Demba Ba and Gio Moreno along with a couple of other first-team regulars. Even that rarest of sightings, a proactive attack-minded substitution from Gregorio Manzano – throwing on Gao Di for the much-improved Wang Shouting – couldn’t quite find a way through a spirited Guoan rearguard.
Like many other defensive-minded mid-table sides which have come to Hongkou with a lack of ambition, Guoan wasted time keenly and played the referee well, hanging on for a just-about-merited point. Guoan had made much of the early running, and a resurgent performance from the much-maligned Li Shuai in nets for Shenhua made a genuine case for both keepers to be considered their side’s best performer on the night.
2016 in a nutshell: Shenhua finish slightly ahead of par, but with regrets
Assuming that a series of unlikely last-day shenanigans don’t see them overturn city rivals Shanghai International Port Group’s slender advantage, Shenhua will end the season in fourth – pretty much bang on the money. There isn’t really a better squad below them, nor a weaker side ahead of them – Shenhua have done well to cope with injuries and ride their spectacular mid-season home form to finish ahead of a stagnating Beijing and self-destructive Shandong, while seeing off the brief challenge of newly-minted Hebei China Fortune.
While some questions have been answered, others remain concerns ahead of 2017 – while Shenhua seem to have found a stable center-back pairing in Kim Ki-hee and the still-hotheaded Li Jianbin, the lack of impact of big-money singing Bi Jinhao has to be a concern. Li Yunqiu seemed fleetingly to have solved the right-back dilemma, only to spend most of the year injured. Cao Yunding has finally solved the left-wing problem by showcasing his undoubted talent consistently over a season – but Lv Zheng and Zhang Lu on the right continue to blow cold a lot more often than hot. Obafemi Martins has stepped up to make a genuine case for being the second-base striker in the entire league – but Manzano could not find a way to get him and Ba working together in the same side. And even Gio Moreno’s return to form is overshadowed by the fact that Fredy Guarin – formerly an international footballer of European Champions League pedigree – seems to have become some kind of bizarre Colombian spirit animal for his countryman, doomed to ineffectively shin passes left, right and into touch. And while the side have finally shown a consistently ruthless streak in the biggest games at home – and even found ways to earn a few more points on the road – their consistently poor showings against lower-table sides and inability to hold onto a lead against painfully limited opposition is ultimately going to be what costs them a third place they had done most of the hard work to grasp.
From Changchun to Brisbane? Long trips await
The main difference between third and fourth place in the 2016 CSL is one of likely participation in the 2017 Asian Champions League group stages: finish third and you have a plum home tie against a side coming through the preliminary round, finish fourth and you’re facing a similar home tie followed by a winner-takes-all trip to Japan, Korea or Australia over Chinese New Year in pre-season. Changchun away this Sunday is going to look like a short trip compared to Shenhua’s likely long-haul, shortly-lived return to continental competition – Shenhua need to win away from home against a Changchun side who have to win to be sure to avoid Hangzhou creeping back past them into that last safe spot in the table, and hope that Shanghai International Port Group somehow fail to take all three points at home against a freefalling, already-on-holiday Hebei. In short: be thankful that at least it’s going to be warm in Brisbane in early February.
Prediction and reality check
… it’s not going to happen, is it? Changchun will be fired up and are playing for their lives in front of a home crowd, and Shenhua’s collection of battered bodies – now missing Li Jianbin after yet another needless injury-time red card midweek – must be feeling dispirited knowing that matters are now out of their own hands. They may well huff and puff again, but they’re not going to blow the door down – short of options and both Ba and Moreno, Shenhua could easily finish 2016 with their third failure to score in a row. A gritty, depressing 1-0 home win, possibly compounded by Shanghai International Port Group amusingly coming close to bottling it at home to Hebei, only for it to not matter in the end.
Shenhua in 2016 according to North Terrace News:
P 29 W 13 D 10 L 6 GF 46 GA 37 GD +9 Pts 49
Shenhua in 2016 according to the CSL table:
P 29 W 12 D 12 L 5 GF 46 GA 30 GD +16 Pts 48