Sunday evening sees an opening-weekend derby, with Shanghai Shenhua welcoming Jiangsu Suning to Hongkou to resume Yangtze delta hostilities. Can Shenhua recover from their calamitous Champions League playoff exit, or will the Nanjing side rub more salt into the wound?
What’s the Spanish for “plus ça change”?
Shenhua’s official goal for 2017 is to qualify for the competition they strived to qualify for all last season, only to throw away in the first half-hour of an absolutely shambolic home-banker playoff against a tired mid-table Australian A-League side at the beginning of this year. In order to qualify once again for the AFC Champions League, Shenhua have dispensed with a mediocre Europe-based coach after his first season at the club, to replace him with a man with a mediocre record at mid-ranking European clubs – and additionally let a star-performing big-name international star go to replace him with a big-money South American at the tail-end of his career, while using their domestic signing quota on back-up players from the bottom reaches of the CSL and below. A side spearheaded by genuine talent and passion in the shape of captain Gio Moreno and the electric left-flank pairing of Cao Yunding and Bai Jiajun has a strong if lopsided first XI and very patchy squad cover, is likely to finish anywhere between 4th and 6th depending how consistently they can perform this year, and will probably go on a decent cup run only to be knocked out by Jiangsu in the semi-finals. It’s groundhog day once again, folks.
The Tevez conundrum
Let’s put the money to one side – did Shenhua really need Tevez when Obafemi Martins had done such a great job of performing the squat, stocky striker role in the second half of 2016? Fitting both Tevez and Martins into the same side looks to be a real head-scratcher for better coaches than Poyet – Shenhua have struggled to make 4-4-2 work since the heady days of Lucas Viatri and Paulo Henrique, with even the big-man little-man pairing of Demba Ba and Martins falling flat against anything other than second-tier sides on the rare occasion they got a look-in together prior to the big Senegalese’s gut-wrenching season-ending injury.
Despite the almost inevitable off-field complaints and controversy which follow the Argentinean around, his on-pitch quality and effort cannot be in doubt – Poyet must find a way to get Tevez firing. Rumor has it that, following the failed policy of pairing Tevez and Martins ahead of an unbalanced flat midfield four, the #32 is set to start behind Gio Moreno for the season opener. Given the players’ relative strengths, this isn’t quite as crazy an idea as it might seem – the further up the pitch and more centrally Moreno is deployed, the better – but there’s a very special kind of logic in a side whose transfer policy is to spend world-record money on a striker in order to play him in attacking midfield with the side’s best attacking midfielder moving up front, and last year’s best striker sitting on the bench. Given what’s going on behind them – Qin Sheng is good, but not quite good enough to cover for the shadow which was once a footballer named Fredy Guarin or the lightweight Sun Shilin – this does all smack a little of rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic.
Dead man walking?
North Terrace News doesn’t necessarily approve of immediate managerial impatience, but Gus Poyet has potentially blotted his copybook irredeemably with a truly baffling selection to send the side crashing embarrassingly out of their long-awaited return to continental competition at the first, low, hurdle. Two short strikers up front – the side’s best player, a languid left-footed attacking midfielder instructed to stay wide on the right wing – and below-par reserves starting in the back four. First-choice center back Li Jianbin and right back Li Yunqiu were fit enough to be on the bench, but apparently not in the side – and big-money centerback Bi Jinhao and able deputy Xiong Fei were also nowhere to be seen. Poyet’s more aloof, abrasive style has won few fans in the local media and fan circles in comparison to the more laid-back Gregorio Manzano, too – for all his painful flaws as a coach, Manzano was somewhat more genial as a man at least. Rumors abound that the Spaniard is already being lined up to replace his successor – Poyet has unoffically been given five tough opening fixtures to hold onto his job, and NTN would be amazed should the Uruguayan still be in situ come the end of the year.
Visitors showing benefits of stability?
For suffering fans of the eternal Hongkou soap opera, it’s galling that better-run clubs in both their own city and neighboring province have taken the lead in showing how to lead the charge behind Guangzhou Evergrande. Suning have had a relatively undisruptive transfer window, and are led by a manager in Choi Yong-soo who has an actual track record of success. Their international contingent is a combination of South Americans in the prime of their careers with younger players with something to prove, and they don’t make a habit of selling their better domestic players or dipping into lower leagues to build competition for places; this is the recipe for both noisy local neighbors who have taken on top dog status in their local rivalries with the traditional bigger-brother Shenhua.
This could be a mongrel of a game – a Shenhua side lacking sharpness and cohesion comes up against a Suning side with a couple of solid performances in the ACL group stages and CFA Super Cup under their belt. With Shenhua having made a dog’s dinner of their playoff and fresh with memories from late-2016 of both a high-caliber (but ultimately meaningless) home league win against Suning followed by yet another galling cup defeat, there should be no shortage of motivation here. There’s probably too much quality in the Shenhua squad for 2017 to go too badly wrong – and Poyet (or someone else) will eventually work out which three of Tevez, Moreno, Martins and Kim Kee-hee to use week-by-week, while getting the best out of Cao Yunding and Mao Jianqing and working out which of Li Peng, Wang Wei and Zhu Jianrong are ready to step up from China League One relegation into the top half of the CSL.
This game comes a little too soon for all of that, however – Shenhua are notoriously slow starters, and must go into this one as the underdogs – don’t be surprised to see the new-look frontline fail to click and turn out to be more bark than bite, with Shenhua to come out on the wrong side of a 0-2 home defeat here. There’s enough quality in Shenhua’s side to go head-to-head with the strengthened Hebei and the unproven Tianjin Quanjian in a race for best-of-the-rest, but these first few weeks will be nervy and frustrating for fans – and perhaps fatal for Poyet’s time at the club.
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