Wednesday night sees Shanghai Shenhua welcome continental competition back after six barren years. Can a new-look Shenhua side catch Brisbane Roar cold, or will the Carlos Tevez era backfire before the season has really begun?
Ah, playoffs. Especially in such a low-scoring sport as football, nothing else can quite ratchet the already-high tension up to 11 quite like the winner-takes-all one-off game following a hard-fought league campaign. That’s right – there’s no home-and-away action here – the AFC Champions League preliminaries and playoff rounds are among the most unforgiving in football – one 90-minute shot is all you get. Shenhua are somewhat traditionally slow starters in the springtime cold, and have a patchy record in knockout ties – veering from consistently putting their noisy neighbors back in their place, through to the inexplicable hex Jiangsu seem to have in always emerging as top dog in Yangtze Delta cup football. The first day of the new season is always a heady cocktail of anticipation, belief, fear and uncertainty – throw in a one-shot knockout continental cup tie and the romantic allure of football in the crispy cold under midweek floodlights, and North Terrace News wouldn’t give a Hongkou XXXX for anything less.
Welcome to Shanghai, Carlitos
Tevez will undoubtedly dominate much of the media buildup – and Brisbane preparations – for his headling-grabbing multi-million dollar move. Putting all the zeroes to one side – yes, it’s an obscene amount, but no, value for money is a meaningless notion in the FFP-free world of Chinese football – how will the Argentinean’s undoubted class on the football pitch make a difference? Shenhua fans will be hoping for the man whose goals settled big games for some of the greatest names in world football (and Manchester City) to make an immediate impact. Score here, and a city full of blue #32 shirts awaits. There are some question marks over how effective Tevez will be along side the similarly stocky Obafemi Martins up front with the aerial power of Demba Ba still sorely missed as the big Senegalese recuperates in Turkey – fans posing such questions would do well to remember that there’s barely anyone in the Shenhua squad who can cross or deliver a set-piece half-reliably, and the clever running and coolness under pressure are what propelled Martins to his goalscoring success in the second half of 2016.
New manager, new style?
It’s fair to say that while Gregorio Manzano underwhelmed as Shenhua coach, fans were hoping for someone with a stronger recent track record than Gus Poyet – the early promise of Uruguayan’s coaching career at Brighton and Sunderland fizzling out with a truly dire short-lived spell at Betis preceding his appointment in Shanghai. At least Poyet might mark a change in style – Manzano followed Francis Gillot in a line of identikit elderly white European coaches with utterly grey track records and colorless, one-paced styles of non-interventionist football. Poyet should bring more fire and directness to the role – it remains to be seen quite how he manages to work Martins, Tevez, the iconic Gio Moreno and then local Shanghainese prospect-come-good Cao Yunding and returning prodigal son Mao Jianqing into one side. NTN’s best guess would be a 4-2-3-1 with Tevez, Moreno and Cao behind Martins – and a boatload of pace to stretch the game from the bench in Mao and the oft-maligned (usually fairly) Lv Zheng. That would leave the redoubtable Qin Sheng sitting alongside either new signing Sun Shilin or old stager Wang Yun in front of the back four – perhaps the best news of all for Shenhua’s prospects in this game are that the AFC’s 3+1 foreign player rule sees solid centerback Kim Kee-Hee selected ahead of the badly-misfiring Fredy Guarin.
Two teams enter, one team leaves
In many ways Brisbane might fancy themselves for this – they’re a team in decent nick, sitting third in this season’s A-League following a similar finish last year. They summarily dispatched the wonderfully-named Global Smartmatic from the Philippines 6-0 in the previous playoff round, and should have a significant conditioning advantage over Shenhua – A-League teams as a rule are more physical and fitter than their CSL counterparts, and Brisbane are mid-season compared to their hosts who’re a month away from the domestic season kicking-off. Nevertheless, A-League teams have a poor record in China for some good reasons – not only is the travel time and temperature drop rather brutal at this time of year (a fact assiduously checked personally this very week by your ever-professional correspondent), with this halfway-round-the-world jaunt sitting between top-half domestic clashes against key rivals from Sydney and Melbourne. In Shenhua’s favor is their relatively settled squad, better financial resources and marquee players, and home advantage in China’s best old-school football stadium which will be absolutely bouncing with fans starved of continental action since 2011’s meek campaign.
This is a tricky game to call, balanced in some ways on a knife-edge – the longer Brisbane can keep things tight, the more likely they are to be able to outrun and outlast their ring-rusty hosts. Shenhua probably need to go at the visitors hard from the off, and trust their superior firepower to open up one of the A-League’s tighter defences – if Shenhua can get a goal or two ahead early doors, the tie could be over before it begins, and this side is well-built to punish teams on the counter if and when Brisbane have to start coming at their hosts. While Brisbane have more recent ACL experience to draw on, it’s worth remembering that Shenhua are here on merit, following a stunning run through the middle third of 2016 which saw them put almost every big side to the sword when they came to Hongkou. It’s difficult to predict with complete confidence – Shenhua far too often stumble over their lines in games they really should win, as evidenced by finishing fourth rather than third last year and the much cushier tie against south-east Asian opposition that would have entailed – but the Hongkou side are embodied by their captain and his flair for the dramatic. 3-1 Shenhua, quite possibly featuring a signature Moreno overhead kick to pierce the Wednesday night sleet.