It’s the CSL’s big Tim Cahill Derby on Sunday, as third-place Shenhua stutter towards the finish line with a trip to relegation-threatened Hangzhou Greentown. Will the curse of Huanglong finally be broken?
Uneasy favorites freeze again
There’s something not quite right with the mentality of Shenhua, and there hasn’t been for years – the charitable take is that they struggle to deal with the tag of being favorites, the less flattering option that they simply don’t bother turning up for supposedly easy games and end up with egg on their faces almost every time. Either way, a team who can consistently put the CSL’s very best sides to the sword at Hongkou managed yet another dreary, disjointed and barely-deserved draw against a bang average, unambitious Henan side with nothing to play for last Sunday.
2-2 almost flattered Shenhua, with the home side creating little of note outside of two well-taken Gio Moreno goals; a smart header and nerveless penalty twice putting the home side ahead and looking set fair to lock down third place, only for the Shenhua midfield to fall to pieces in the face of the faintest pressure from a deeply underwhelming opposition, and veteran goalkeeper Li Shuai to blot his copybook yet further with two more inexcusable, points-costing mistakes to add to his tally this season – first allowing a Javier Patino shot straight down the middle of the goal to crawl under his creaking elderly frame, and then letting a slow-motion overhead kick from the same player bobble in at his near post.
Three goals in seven second-half minutes didn’t really tell the story of a mostly drab encounter low on both quality and drama, with national-coach-elect Gregorio Manzano showcasing his famed tactical prowess and game-changing dynamism by making a single substitution after the hour mark – replacing an underperforming right-winger with another underperforming right-winger.
Embrace the mediocrity
The frequent extended mid-season breaks really kill the momentum of the domestic league season (thank goodness they help the national side out, eh?), and can cloud the narrative of a team’s season – it’s all too easy to forget that Shenhua are wrapping up their best season in years, set to qualify for the Champions League having beaten almost every top side in the country at home and picked up some crucial away wins – but all that fans in Shanghai have seen in the past two months is yet another big-game FA Cup surrender to Jiangsu, and two truly dreadful bottle-job 2-2 draws against mid-table sides sandwiching a barely-deserved late 2-1 win against a side set to go down.
It feels like Shenhua’s inconsistent record and points-per-game tally of 1.7 shouldn’t be enough to have continental qualification in the bag at this stage, but glancing through the records shows that it ever was thus in the CSL – Shenhua would be finishing 3rd or 4th in the league since, well, the days when they used to finish in the top four with very similar records to this year’s. Whether this is continued evidence of a fairly even and unpredictable division with relatively little gap between many of the sides outside the very biggest guns, or of ongoing mediocrity across the board is an argument for another day – either way, Shenhua’s final position this year shouldn’t be considered ‘soft’ when looking at the history books, despite the prevailing mood in some corners of Hongkou.
Time to change a broken record?
Played ten, drawn seven, lost three. Won none. Spanked four-one last season thanks to a gaffe-prone goalkeeping performance. Shenhua’s record at Hangzhou in the CSL era is fairly appalling, particularly considering that for the majority of these years Shenhua have been pushing towards the top of the table, with Hangzhou perennially clinging on against relegation. Huanglong has not been a happy hunting ground for Shenhua.
The home side looked dead and buried after a dreadful start to the 2016 season, but a mid-season run of form saw them pull clear – only for recent results, and particularly Changchun’s surprise win which put paid to Beijing Guoan’s slim ACL aspirations, have left them looking nervously over their shoulders once again. With a tricky trip to Hebei and last-day match against the flying Yanbian to come, Sunday might feel like both a must-win game and a home banker to the plucky little Zhejiang side.
Prediction and reality check
Football predictions are a mug’s game at the best of times, but 2016-vintage Shenhua are becoming almost impossible to pin any kind of logic on – they pull out away wins in places like Jinan and Tianjin, play title-chasing sides off the park at Hongkou, and then stumble to string one consecutive pass together against mediocre sides stuck in mid-table and thinking of their off-season holidays already. The unwritten laws of football narrative all point clearly to a Hangzhou win this weekend though – it’s the continuation of a historically bad run, a bloody nose for the bigger brother in a one-sided local rivalry, and sees the fight for third spot go right down to the wire. 2-1 Hangzhou, with the only question being just which new and creative way Li Shuai manages to chuck the ball in his own net this week.
Shenhua in 2016 according to North Terrace News:
P 27 W 12 D 9 L 6 GF 43 GA 35 GD +8 Pts 45
Shenhua in 2016 according to the CSL table:
P 27 W 12 D 10 L 5 GF 46 GA 30 GD +16 Pts 46
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