Sunday evening sees Shanghai Shenhua start their sprint for the line with the visit of Henan Jianye – a win against their mid-table opponents will see the Hongkou side put one foot in next season’s Asian Champions League. Can the boys in blue hold their nerve and see out an impressive end to a dramatic 2016 campaign?
Dash for the line
Following an inopportune momentum-checking extended international break, the CSL roars back into action this weekend with a lot still to play for – while the title race and relegation fight are open mathematically, it’s the fight for qualification to next season’s Asian Champions League where the real drama lies. Shenhua come into the home straight in pole position thanks to their imperious home form and a couple of key away wins; when the dust settles on Saturday night’s big clash between Jiangsu
Sainty Suning and Shanghai International Port Group, the Hongkou side will know whether an improbable push for second or holding on to third place is the extent of their ambitions – either way, win both remaining home games, and continental competition will beckon in 2017 for the first time in six long years.
Shenhua’s run-in is deceptively simple; home games against seventh and eight, and away fixtures at 14th-placed Hangzhou and (presumably by then) already-relegated Changchun. The glass half-empty perspective says that Shenhua always struggle in Dongbei, have never won in Hangzhou, tend to struggle to put away a hard-working Henan side, and could throw away everything in another high-stakes clash with their historical rivals – however this 2016 vintage have done most of the hard work, and just need to stay steady and see their campaign home through a series of very winnable run-in fixtures. Regrouping after the dramatic derby injury to Demba Ba – and seeing off Guangzhou Evergrande, Jiangsu, Hebei and Shanghai International Port group at home – mean that this side has done much of the heavy lifting needed, although the tag of expectation sits very uneasily on Shenhua shoulders in recent years, so no chickens should be counted just yet.
One reason for confidence comes from the last match before the extended international break (and thank goodness the China side too such a long time to train for their productive world cup qualification encounters) – Shenhua went ahead at a struggling Tianjin thanks to a commanding header from Li Jianbin, only to undo all their good work with a nervy start to the second period. Sitting at 1-1 with 20 minutes to play, many recent Shenhua sides would have wilted – the team spirit of this year’s vintage came through with a strong finish to the game, the much-maligned Lv Zheng coming up with a winner, with the reborn Obafemi Martins adding gloss and security to the scoreline.
With little team news to speak of – Demba Ba will be out injured for some time yet, and only Kim Ki-hee was in international action – much of the press action has centered on the possibility of Shenhua coach Gregorio Manzano taking on the posioned chalice of national team manager. Manzano finds himself in the odd position of having guided two of China’s fading traditional powers to league finishes of second, fourth, and (fingers crossed) third/fourth in an era of big money elsewhere in the league – solid achievements on paper – yet having remarkably few advocates for his style or management among fans of those clubs. For what it’s worth, NTN sees the Spaniard as a safe pair of hands at best – a mediocre journeyman coach who won’t rock the boat, and will let players get on with their thing. Much of Shenhua’s success this season comes down to individual star quality, backs-to-the-wall team spirit, and failings from a couple of other sides in the league – were Manzano to move on, few tears would be shed on the north terrace.
A side in red famous for their fans’ hub-cap stealing antics and recent mid-table finishes, Henan are certainly not walking alone right now in a congested CSL mid table. Following on from last year’s impressive tussle to finish best-of-the-rest alongside an ailing Shenhua, the Zhengzhou side have once again proved difficult opponents in 2016, although their poor away form has come home to roost in a recent tricky run, seeing them sitting comfortably in the middle of the pack but short of any serious aspirations to challenge for Asian qualification. Shenhua labour struggle to put away deep-lying sides who hit on the counter, and recent years have seen a series of one-goal wins of low-scoring draws – expect some serious resistance to be put up once again at Hongkou come Sunday evening.
Prediction and reality check
On paper, this is a straightforward home win – Shenhua are imperious at home, have a lot to play for, and are taking on a hardworking but limited side who are running out of steam. In reality, it’s rarely that easy, particularly in high-stakes games for Shenhua – win this one, and continental travels are all but assured. Expect a nervy, cagey affair – quite possibly sitting at 1-1 going into the last fifteen minutes – before the sheer force of the Hongkou crowd and the team spirit of Shenhua ’16 come to the fore, with Gio Moreno or Obafemi Martins to break the deadlock late on. 2-1 Shenhua and the boys in blue march on towards mixing it with the continent’s finest in 2017.
Shenhua in 2016 according to North Terrace News:
P 26 W 11 D 9 L 6 GF 41 GA 34 GD +7 Pts 42
Shenhua in 2016 according to the CSL table:
P 26 W 12 D 9 L 5 GF 44 GA 28 GD +16 Pts 45