A Saturday afternoon kick-off sees Shenhua return home to Hongkou for the first time since March. Expect fireworks in another big-drama Shanghai Derby.
There are some things in life you only get to do once. You only fall in love with your football club once. All true fans can remember the first time they went to the ground and saw a game live – the incredible shock to the senses of just how green the grass looks, the smell of liniment from the dressing rooms, and the noise of thousands of angry men shouting and stamping – and the speed and intensity of the game in front of you, how much bigger and better and more real everything looks than on TV. And over the years you grow up and you migrate from the family stand to the terrace behind the goal, and you learn some of those songs and chants yourself, and a life-long bond is formed. It’s a once-in-a-lifetime thing.
Except some of us, we get to do it twice. Maybe the biggest perk of the expatriate fan is that we get to fall in love twice. And the second time you’re doing it as an adult – the heady mix of the conscious knowledge of what’s going on in the stadium and on the pitch, and the unconscious out-of-control spiraling into a team with different colors, a new stadium, and the drums and songs and chants in a different language to a foreign rhythm. It’s intoxicating.
And like all true love affairs, you never forget the first time. Since your bleary-eyed correspondent first stepped out of a hotpot restaurant onto the north terrace and saw that sea of blue, and got swept up in the flags and the chants, the story could only end one way. It was a drab 0-0 on a freezing midwinter night in a Champions League group Shenhua finished bottom of, in a year they messed around inconsequentially in mid-table all season. And none of that mattered – and it never will, really. Corporate ownership changes and waste-of-money marquee players and injury crises and rubbish managers and ridiculous disciplinary witch-hunts – they come and go. Big-money nouveau-riche franchise opposition bankrolled by electronics retailers or multinational transportation conglomerates or herbal medicine peddlers – they come and go, too. And at the end of it all there’s still Hongkou – that white-hot football cauldron in forgotten corner of the city centre with the fans right on top of the pitch, where you arrive with a birds-eye view from public transport, and where anyone with a footballing soul in this city will be on Saturday afternoon. After two fire-damage plagued months, we’re coming home.
Stalemate in Zhengzhou
The less said about last weekend’s game the better – shorn of much of their star quality, Shenhua huffed and puffed were comprehensively given the runaround by Christian Bassagog in a forgettable game up in Henan. Laboring to hold on to a 0-0 draw against one of the very worst teams in the league is one thing; doing so while ending up playing a 5-4-1 formation and not registering a single shot on target is quite another. Move along, please.
As North Terrace News goes to press, it’s still not entirely clear whether Gio Moreno (having already served a one-match ban for his two-yellow dismissal against Evergrande) and Bai Jiajun (having not even got booked last weekend) are cleared to play in this match, or subject to additional disciplinary sanction from the CFA to conveniently sit out this game against their city rivals. If unavailable, Bai and Moreno would join the ongoing effective season-long suspension of Qin Sheng and the not-quite-fit-yet Fredy Guarin and Carlos Tevez on the sidelines for this one.
First-choice midfield general; best player and combined captain-leader-legend; record signing; revitalized goalscoring box-to-box midfielder; dynamite local-born attacking fullback who bosses the left flank. Frankly you could take this profile of player out of almost any squad in the world and they’d struggle. It’s not just that Shenhua are missing up to half their first-choice team here, but that it’s the good half of their first-choice team (with apologies to the overlooked Cao Yunding – although he’s arguably half the player without his overlapping partner-in-crime).
Prediction and reality check
The Shanghai Derby is usually a corking football event – no shortage of passion, drama, controversy and on-pitch quality. Shenhua have made a habit of saving their best performances for prestigious league games at home to the country’s top sides, too – roared on by that incredible 12th man, it’s tempting to picture them once again pulling together to overcome their technically gifted visitors with the suspect big-game bottle.
This one feels like a stretch too far, though – much like when they finally ran out of steam in the push for third at the end of last year, Shenhua’s paper-thin squad is simply missing too many players for Saturday. Cao can’t do everything on his own, and Oba Martins has been inconsistent this year – that dummy-to-nobody when in on goal against Henan had agonising echoes of the open goal he fluffed against Brisbane.
Expect Hongkou to be loud, proud and passionate – and the patched-up home side to give the best possible account of themselves on the day – but Gus Poyet’s side are potentially just a bit too hamstrung here. 0-2.
Shenhua in 2017 according to North Terrace News:
P 8 W 2 D 2 L 4 GF 9 GA 12 GD -3 Pts 8
Shenhua in 2017 according to the CSL table:
P 8 W 3 D 2 L 3 GF 15 GA 12 GD +3 Pts 11
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