Shanghai Shenhua may have sealed Asian Champions League preliminary round qualification this week, but their patchy form means they are no longer favorites for third spot and direct entry to the play-off round. Can a win over old rivals help set the Hongkou side up to pip their newer rivals to the qualification post?
The curse of Huanglong continues
One more year without a win in Hangzhou – in fact, given the home side’s utter lack of ideas and ambition, one can only hope that Changchun and Shijiazhuang get their act together and send Hangzhou Greentown down, depriving Shenhua of the opportunity to fail at Huanglong again next season. Shenhua may have shaded the game in terms of possession and attempts to anything other than sit deep and kick the ball or any player who came near, but Sunday night was a drab affair sorely lacking in penetration – if they were still playing right now, the game would be stuck at 0-0.
Shenhua might count themselves slightly unfortunate in that they were denied a stonewall penalty when captain Gio Moreno was scythed down in the area in the 38th minute; Moreno had already been struggling with a knock, and was thus substituted off. With the rangy Colombian joining his compatriot Fredy Guarin (subbed off after 18 minutes for crimes against football) on the bench, Shenhua were left with a side which should work in theory, but had never had a chance to practice prior to Sunday night throwing them together.
Breaking down a side camped in their own half with one bank of four and another of five is never the easiest proposition, but passing the ball around slowly a lot sideways in your own half before launching long balls at two pint-sized strikers isn’t really the best way to do it. Oba Martins and Gao Di – for once allowed to play in his natural position of center-forward – were willing runners, but starved of any meaningful service. Shenhua’s midfield four was painfully flat, with the wingers struggling to make any penetration – Zhang Lu has spent much of his Shenhua career at right-back rather than more advanced positions, and Cao Yunding, for all his wonderful form and richly-deserved international call-up, is a right-footed attacking midfielder who cuts inside, rather than a natural touchline-hugging left winger.
Stumbling backwards into continental competition
Two wins in eight – hardly inspiring form, but it’s been enough to see Shenhua seal a minimum of fourth spot, largely thanks to the travails of others. With Beijing Guoan seeing off Guangzhou R&F earlier in gameweek 27, Shenhua knew they would take part in next season’s ACL even before a ball was kicked in Hangzhou. Perhaps the injuries and thin squad are finally taking a toll on Shenhua – after their initial doubt-defying run following that horror injury to talismanic striker Demba Ba, the boys in blue have come crashing back down to earth of late – they’re currently stuck playing the deeply unconvincing and immobile Wang Lin at right-back, and haven’t been able to give Martins a breather since that summer injury to Ba. They’ve been forced to play at times without the only left-footed player in their squad and with various makeshift defences, and are essentially bereft of any attacking variety – the only real question is whether Lv Zheng or Zhang Lu start on the right.
Questions might be asked of Shenhua’s physical preparation, however – while they have a thin and injury-hit squad, the CSL is not the world’s most schedule in terms of fixture congestion, and there have been a series of extended international breaks of late during which only Kim Ki-hee has been given a call-up. It’s a little concerning that the admirable Qin Sheng is always, always gassed after 70 minutes and needs to be subbed, and that a series of Shenhua players were going down with cramp as early as the hour mark down in Hangzhou – do Gregorio Manzano and his team not work on fitness during the breaks?
China derby the perfect tonic?
Shenhua’s stuttering form sees, for the first time in months, neighbors Shanghai International Port Group looking to have the upper hand in the race for third – and rather than just an argument for local bragging rights, this could well be the difference between a gentle draw in the play-off round or a tricky trip to Korea, Japan or Australia to face elimination before the competition proper has even started in 2017. With Shanghai International Port Group looking likely to beat Tianjin and an off-color Hebei in their remaining games, Shenhua’s points cushion has been all-but erased and they have to rely on that superior H2H record – only two wins is likely to be good enough to seal third spot.
Perhaps the visit of an old rival is exactly what the doctor ordered; the chance to lift themselves one last time for a 2016 farewell to Hongkou and the remarkable exploits in beating every top-tier side to visit Shanghai. While Manzano’s former side have had a poor 2016, their midweek visit shouldn’t be taken lightly however – back in June, they produced perhaps their most spirited and committed performance of the year, laying siege to the visiting Shenhua and being perhaps a touch unlucky to have won only 2-1. With pride to play for and the chance to deny an old rival, expect the men in green to be fired up once again come Wednesday night at Hongkou.
Prediction and reality check
Shenhua need to win, and have done a great job this year of raising themselves for the biggest games – if (and when) they fail to make third spot, it will be due to points needlessly thrown away in games against mid-table sides rather than their record against the CSL’s best. Wednesday night and a two-day turnaround may just be a bridge too far for a flagging squad with fitness concerns though – both Guarin and Moreno started the game looking a little unfit on Sunday, and alternative options in attack are thin. Hongkou will doubtless be a footballing cauldron to lift their side once again – and the side of 2016 deserve a good send-off regardless of their recent struggles – but a canny and experienced Guoan might just know when to sit and absorb the pressure and when the hit an ailing Shenhua on the break. 1-1 and advantage Shanghai International Port Group in the race for third.
Shenhua in 2016 according to North Terrace News:
P 28 W 13 D 9 L 6 GF 45 GA 36 GD +9 Pts 48
Shenhua in 2016 according to the CSL table:
P 28 W 12 D 11 L 5 GF 46 GA 30 GD +16 Pts 47
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