Shanghai Shenhua blew the doors off the opening weekend of the 2017 Chinese Super League season with a barnstorming blowout win over near-neighbors Jiangsu Suning. After sending one of the CSL’s most fancied sides slinking home with tails between legs, can Shenhua see off the league’s latest big-money new entry?
Yangtze Delta top dogs
You’ve seen the goals by now – good ones, all four of them. You’ve read the match reports. You get the idea. Shenhua were utterly, unexpectedly, brilliantly imperious last Sunday evening, roaring out of the traps in top gear and keeping a much-fancied, in-form Jiangsu Suning side on the back foot for the entire first 45 minutes, even managing to notch that crucial second goal to press home the advantage while on top. The side in blue put in almost the complete footballing performance, weathering some early second half pressure before coming through their collective difficult moment – aided by some no-nonsense center-half displays from Li Jianbin and Tao Jin, and TV-friendly goalkeeping acrobatics from a surprisingly sprightly-looking Li Shuai – to put the game to bed and crush their local rivals’ spirit with a brace of late goals. There was even time for wind-up merchant par excellence Wang Yun to cap a cameo substitute performance by putting in some top-drawer face-clutching to ensure Alex Teixeira saw a needless injury-time red card for petulance. Job done.
From Jekyll to Hyde in record time
It’s impossible to know what to expect from this Shenhua side right now – fresh from looking complete strangers in their last outing where they capitulated to make a painfully average Brisbane Roar look like PSG at home, Shenhua put in perhaps their best, most complete performance this correspondent has ever witnessed (2012’s home deconstruction of Beijing Guoan, maybe?). Solid at the back, a buzzing left-flank interplay between Cao Yunding and Bai Jiajun – two men who spend so much time on one another’s wavelength it’s remarkable they’re not sick of each other yet – and some high-caliber South American firepower from Gio Moreno and Carlos Tevez.
Even the central midfield worked out – Qin Sheng was at his industrial, imperious best (starting out with a spectacularly good too-early-to-get-booked reducer to set the tempo) and Fredy Guarin looked like a man who had found himself after a year of wandering Anelka-style through an alternate dimension in the Hongkou center circle. Guarin seems to have bulked up and knuckled down a little over the close-season – perhaps having a point to prove after his omission from Shenhua’s short-lived AFC Champions League squad – and put himself about well throughout the 90 minutes, even if his assist for Mao Jianqing’s goal was slightly fortunate – Shanghai’s returning prodigal son scoring his inevitable (re-)debut goal in front of the North Terrace by turning in Guarin’s botched attempt at the old Anderton-Sheringham corner routine. Tevez, Moreno and Mao (replacing a willing but slightly starstruck Xu Junmin) looked a genuine interchanging Swiss Army Knife of a modern front three in the second half – between them they bring height, pace, directness, trickery, right foot, left foot – even set-piece delivery, something which Shenhua have been sorely lacking since the retirement of Xu Liang.
Poyet hits the jackpot at second attempt?
Unlike previous inhabitants of the Hongkou dugout, at least Gus Poyet is willing to change things when they’re not working – that horror show of an ACL lineup was reshuffled for perhaps Shenhua’s best side given the current CSL squad rules – with the caveat that the wardrobe-like Wang Lin is deputizing at right-back for an actual footballer like the injured Li Yunqiu or surprisingly-benched Xiong Fei.
Korean center-back Kim Kee-hee and Nigerian hitman Obafemi Martins were the men to miss out here due to the three-foreigner rule – Moreno and Tevez are frankly undroppable if on form, and Guarin for once made a solid case for himself to get in the side on his own merit, as opposed to a placebo to help countryman Moreno perform better. Kim remains Shenhua’s best center-back, but Li Jianbin is no slouch at this level, and Poyet clearly trusts Tao Jin’s comparative maturity approach alongside the hotheaded stopper. Martins – particularly after last season’s goalscoring heroics – can count himself unfortunate that Tevez was signed ahead of him, but the balance of the side looked a lot better last Sunday. Under the old 3+1 ruling, Kim would be back in the side – and without the U23 stipulation, Mao would start ahead of Xu – but the side which faced Jiangsu had a balance and composure very much lacking in the season-opening debacle.
There remain a couple of squad questions – specifically where on earth have Bi Jinhao and Zhang Lu disappeared to, and when will any of the signings from Tier 3-bound Qingdao be trusted with top-flight game time – but for the time being Shenhua potentially have some key questions answered. On days like last Sunday, bouyed on by the loudest atmosphere in the best football ground in China, Shenhua look unstoppable – until they come up against bang-average sides who sit back and wait for the home side to blow themselves out of steam, that is.
Shenhua’s familiarity with Quanjian from last season’s CFA Cup is of limited use here – Fabio Cannovaro effectively threw the two-legged knockout tie by putting out a reserve side to focus on an ultimately successful promotion campaign. After making waves signing China international Sun Ke as a second-tier side, Quanjian have continued to spend, and to spend mostly wisely since coming up – the unfortunate Alex Pato has the look of a rich club’s folly to him, but the admirably-honest Axel Witsel is a top-drawer midfielder who could have had his pick of European sides had Quanjian’s money not talked louder – this will be a real an immediate test of Guarin’s possible reinvigoration. Wang Yongpo, Zhao Xuri and Mi Haolun are all solid-caliber CSL starters with experience at this level though. Tianjin’s newest side do have the distinct feel of 2016’s Hebei about them, though – an unstable combination of expensive European football pedigree and CSL experience built on distinctly China League One foundations – injury and suspension will test a thin-looking squad over the year, although on their day they may give anyone a game.
Prediction and reality check
… given the six-goal swing between prediction and reality last week, why exactly are you still reading right now? In all honesty, this could be a coin-toss of a game – talented yet brittle Shenhua side welcomes big-money newly-promoted team who got their season off to a disappointing start down in Guangzhou. It should be a comfortable home banker, but these types of games have ended in disappointment far too often over the years for a Shenhua side who seem to perform beautifully in their niche of regular-season games against big-name teams, but fall consistently short when it matters or when they’re clear favorites. 1-1 and a bit of a reality check for a side who fleetingly looked good enough to win the league last week.
Shenhua in 2017 according to North Terrace News:
P 1 W 0 D 0 L 1 GF 0 GA 2 GD -2 Pts 0
Shenhua in 2016 according to the CSL table:
P 1 W 1 D 0 L 0 GF 4 GA 0 GD +4 Pts 3
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