Shenhua return to the fray after the international break with a seemingly winnable home banker against Chongqing. But can the focus stay on the pitch this time?
Grumblings of discontent
This column exists mainly as a warning to the folly of being a football fan. It’s the hope that kills – a month ago Shenhua were finally returning home to a fire-damaged stadium, all in time for that game of games, the Shanghai derby. A few of you might remember how that one went, and it’s been largely downhill ever since. In true Shenhua fashion, this week’s talking points are more off the pitch than on, as a large public meeting was held between fans, CEO Zhou Jun and Chairman Wu Xiaohui.
The main point of discussion was the club’s bizarre domestic transfer policy – the stated ambition of being ACL challengers jarring with signing three Qingdao players in the process of being relegated to League Two. One of those players has yet to play a minute of league football – apparently being ‘so keen to play’, he hid an injury and thus made it worse (a story so ridiculous that makes one think maybe he is Shenhua material after all). With league rules changing at the last moment to emphasise domestic players even more, it’s this history of underwhelming Chinese signings that’s really undermining Shenhua’s ability to compete – their current backline would struggle to make a compelling case for themselves in League One, let alone the sharp end of the CSL.
This decline is crystalised by the elevation of Tao Jin to a regular starter – a 32 year old who’s been at the club since 2006 and barely played a match prior to last season is suddenly a first XI player, plainly down to a lack of alternatives. Oddly, he’s seen as preferable to last season’s CSL young player of the year – 21 year old Li Xiaoming was impressive on loan at Henan last year, but has been sent out on loan again to Shenzhen. This distrust of youth seems to run deep at Shenhua, with many players’ careers extended beyond usefulness at the expense of bringing through new talent.
The club responded as one might expect – a promise of better signings to come, and in fairness there have been attempts in that area, they’ve just not come off. Defender Bi Jinhao was signed for a domestic record in 2016, but has struggled with injury since. Of course all of this is in direct contrast to a foreign transfer policy which has landed one of the world’s most expensive players – Carlos Tevez (more on him later). It feels cheap to resort to Chinese stereotyping of the money going on the flashy headline-grabbers, while the core is neglected and longer-term investment is sidelined, but really – what other conclusion can one draw?
With all that said and done, shall we try to concentrate on some football? After an international break that saw a welcome return to the Colombia national side for captain Gio Moreno (complete with cheeky rabona, no less), the CSL is back, baby.
Last time out: Battle of the also-rans
On their last trip Shenhua could at least empathise with their hosts – both Tianjin Teda and Shenhua now very much secondary teams in cities that used to be their sole domain. That this empathy extended to a sleepwalking nonentity of a performance and a deserved 2-1 loss is subject to rather more debate. The goal came late, again, but Teda were in charge for large chunks and Shenhua’s midfield looked totally shorn of bite with Guarin sidelined. Most of the post-match debate centred on another dispiriting performance from Carlos Tevez, who’s rarely been short of energy in his career but looks like a man going through the motions. He was another point of debate in the fans meeting this week – apparently the man himself admitting that his form has been poor, and that he’s struggling to settle. The club are again making the right noises about helping him adapt, but it’s one issue that takes time to fix – it’s easy to remember Fredy Guarin being a pale shadow of himself on arrival last year; now he’s found his feet he looks indispensable.
This time up: Chongqing Lifan
Chongqing have been a solid mid-table side since their return to the top tier in 2015, but are struggling this time around – sitting in 13th they are one of only four teams below Shenhua in the table, and only a point outside the relegation spots. They do have a recent turnaround to point to, however – their last match being a very surprising home victory over Beijing Guoan, albeit a Guoan who saw two red cards and sacked their manager immediately after the game (no sniggering at the back).
At the time of writing we’re short of team news for this one, but it’s got to happen, hasn’t it? Forget everything about hope being the killer, because this time it’s going to be different. If Shenhua can’t beat a struggling Chongqing side at Hongkou after a week of introspective inquisition we may as well all pack up and go home, eh? And try not to set that home on fire. You get the drift. This one has got 3-1 Shenhua written all over it, hopefully including Tevez becoming that little bit more acclimatised.
Shenhua in 2017 according to North Terrace News:
P 11 W 2 D 3 L 6 Pts 9
Shenhua in 2017 according to the CSL table:
P 11 W 3 D 3 L 5 Pts 12
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