Almost a month after their last fixture, Shanghai Shenhua return to action on Sunday evening at the home of their oldest rival, and with their midfield gutted by some heavy-handed suspensions. How will a patched-up Shenhua manage against a slow-starting Guoan?
Burned out already?
The dramatic images of a burning Hongkou stadium – and the mysterious Guoan fan who just happened to be passing by – made headlines at home and abroad midweek. Thankfully the blaze in the stadium’s climbing gym left none harmed and relatively little damage to the football side of the stadium, but the images provided an all-too-easy metaphor for a season which feels like it has flamed out before it even started proper with the abject AFC Champions League playoff surrender and now having their key midfielder effectively suspended for the entire season. An early-season China Derby after an interminably long international break – that extended training-camp layoff from domestic action once again ending with the national side defeated and out of the reckoning for World Cup qualification – could either leave Shenhua a charred shell like parts of their home stadium, or reignite a season which briefly flickered with that glorious shellacking of Jiangsu.
The powers-that-be at the CFA did a quite remarkable job of ensuring that a bit of skullduggery in the internationally-televised Shenhua-Quanjian match would not make Chinese football look like a laughing stock by, erm, banning Qin Sheng for six months (effectively the entire domestic season) for a bit of toe-stamping, and throwing in a two-game ban for Sun Shilin for the heinous crime of giving an ironic thumbs-up to the underwhelming Alexandre Pato who had spectacularly missed an erroneously-awarded penalty. Way to go guys, nobody is going to think that could cast the game over here in anything less than the most serious, professional light. Qin’s offense on the impressive Axel Witsel was stupid, needless, thuggish and wrong – and was rightfully punished by leaving his side a man short for a game they struggled to impose themselves on, and should have lead to a 3-4 game ban as elsewhere in world football. Sun Shilin is no great loss – his cheeky gurning being just about the only notable thing the former Liaoning man has managed in a couple of games in Shenhua colors so far – but if you’re going to start retrospectively banning players for not-even-swearing, then you’d better make sure you apply those rules consistently to all teams every week, and woe betide those footballers who ever do anything nastier than being a bit cheeky.
With Qin and Sun being suspended, word is that Shenhua will look to Wang Shouting – a man who last played a decent game of football in 2014 – to anchor their midfield against Guoan, with Wang Yun being seen as more of an attacking player, and Fredy Guarin being seen as… Fredy Guarin. Guoan’s thus-far misfiring forward line must be licking their lips at the prospect of facing a decidedly shaky Shenhua defence – rick-prone Li Shuai will line up behind a back four with no kind of midfield protection, and missing first-choice starters Li Jianbin (injured), Li Yunqiu (racing with Erik Lamela for the world’s longest return from injury), Kim Ke-hee (not South American enough to make the three-foreigner quota) and even Bi Jinhao (disappeared). That’s right folks – it’s quite possibly Shenhua going to Gongti with a center back pairing of Tao Jin partnered by relegated-from-League-One Li Peng. Putting Tao Jin, Wang Lin and Wang Shouting in the same side might just make for the most immobile side ever to have played professional football – although the Anelka-Jiang Kun center-circle patrolling axis of 2012 may still win out.
It’s understandable that Gus Poyet is unwilling to drop his big-money statement signing Carlos Tevez, or best player and captain Gio Moreno – and Guarin will be needed in midfield with the absence of so many others – but there really is a logic to opting for Kim. All the South American firepower in the world is useless if they don’t see enough of the ball and are in front of such a porous, ponderous back-line.
China Derby still a classic
On the pitch, this may not make for great viewing – unless their new coaches make their sides gel quickly and get extremely lucky with injuries and suspensions from here on in, neither of these sides will trouble the top four at the end of the season as things stand – but the China Derby remains an important fixture in the calendar. With ever more new money, corporate takeovers and franchised city-moving, name-changing upstarts trying to make waves in the CSL, there’s something comforting about an old-fashioned knockabout between two traditional beasts of the domestic scene, particularly with the added frisson of that Beijing-Shanghai rivalry thrown in. With the game even being scheduled relatively favorably – there have been a fair few midweek evenings for this clash over recent years – expect to see a large number of Shenhua fans making their presence felt at Gongti, and a great atmosphere for the full 90 minutes and beyond.
Prediction and reality check
This season doesn’t see particularly great vintages for either Guoan or Shenhua. Former Manzano assistant Jose Gonzales is yet to see his side win, so despite Shenhua’s lousy league record in the capital (no wins since 2008), a full-strength visiting side might fancy a draw here – one look at that possible defensive line makes it impossible to see Shenhua coming away from this with anything less than a chastening defeat, though. 3-0 Guoan and bragging rights temporarily with the green half of the China Derby until July 23rd.
Shenhua in 2017 according to North Terrace News:
P 2 W 0 D 1 L 1 GF 1 GA 3 GD -2 Pts 1
Shenhua in 2017 according to the CSL table:
P 2 W 1 D 1 L 0 GF 5 GA 1 GD +4 Pts 4