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North Terrace News: Key pair return for Shenhua ahead of Wuhan away clash

Intermittent Shenhua column North Terrace News is back with WEF founding editor Cameron Wilson at its helm this week.

Positivity currently surrounds the club despite the agony of last weekend’s defeat away to Guangzhou R&F. Key players are back for Shenhua’s first trip to newly promoted Wuhan since 2013, easing the club’s recent selection problems.

Last time out – rare road competence

The season so far has been a mixed bag to say the least. After the disaster that was the Shanghai Derby, and a poor defeat at home to Hebei, Shenhua rallied with a fortuitous away victory against Henan followed by a 5-1 demolition of a very poor Beijing Renhe side.

So, the club went into last weekend’s clash against winless Guangzhou R&F on a high. But for the second week in a row, a club needing to break an unwanted record was able to do so against Shenhua. In Renhe’s case it was score a goal this season, in R&Fs it was win a game.

Once again Flores was forced to ring the changes – this time Cao Yunding was out with an injury. He deployed something like a 3-5-1-1 formation, introducing 18-year-old Jiang Shenglong playing as defensive midfielder.

However Cao was not the biggest omission – fans and media reacted with shock when as captain Gio Moreno’s name could not be found on the team sheet. Ball-hog Oscar Romero took his place instead. Head coach Flores later explained Moreno was being rested ahead of a cluttered schedule towards the end of this month with Shenhua involved in the CFA cup.

The game itself saw Shenhua dominate for the most part with shots on goal well into double figures. R&F on the other hand could only manage two, of which one went in. Their winner was a calamitous own goal by target man Zhu Jianrong right at the death with a 2-1 defeat.

Key points from the game: Igalo’s wastefulness (although he made amends with a well-taken penalty), and the mature and assured performances of teenage back pair Jiang Shenlong and Zhu Chenjie.

R&F were extremely fortunate to win this match. Shenhua will play much much worse than this on the road this season and return to Shanghai with three points.

Defeat poses more questions than answers

Trying to get a steer on how Shenhua’s season is going to go this season is proving tough. Injuries and suspensions have thrown Flores’ plans into disarray, as has the club’s utter lack of investment in decent senior domestic players. The Spaniard has been forced to improvise, and despite a shaky start there are signs his willingness to try untried things at Hongkou might turn out to be successful.

The topsy-turvy start and unconventional tactics has thrown up so many questions. Does Gio being dropped rested mean it’s the start of his final Shenhua chapter? He’s out of contract at the end of the season. So is Freddy. He lost weight after feasting on South American BBQ over the winter, but there’s still murmurings about his performances. How much longer will he remain? And will Romero replace Gio more often this year?

How much longer can Li Shuai remain Shenhua’s first choice keeper? He admitted himself in a recent media interview that at 37 he should be backup to a younger keeper. Why does Flores pick Shen Jun, 32, as his back up on the bench instead of 23-year-old Chen Zhao? Remember Shen has only played two CSL games in around eight years.

Will Flores have the balls to play two 18-year-olds, Zhu Chenjie and Jiang Shenglong, as a central defensive pairing? Current first choice Li Peng is a laughably short of CSL quality.

And how good are the rest of Shenuha’s upcoming youngsters? Liu Ruofan shows promise, but he has a lot to prove, Zhou Junchen is suddenly back after his year-long CFA suspension for unknown misbehaviour in Thailand, is he really any good? Cong Zhen has looked very solid. Will he be a regular starter? What about Xu Yougang. He was basically first choice right back last season, now he seems to be dropped due to Flores playing 3-5-2.

Speaking of which, will Flores retain this moderately successful formation? First choice left back Bai Jiajun will be back soon and he won’t fit into it. Will Cao Yunding remain in his new, inside left midfield position? How much longer can Wang Wei keep his first team place?

Does Flores really not rate Eddy? And what of Alexander N’Doumbou? After a poor first game, he looked like he might actually be a cut above Shenhua’s other domestic players with his display last week (and he’s practising the Chinese national anthem). And is he doing to play in defence again, even although he says he’s a midfielder?

So, so many questions…. and right now we don’t even know what Shenhua’s favoured formation is going to be. This kind of unpredictability is unusual at the club. And is actually quite intriguing.

Fans set the bar too low

One thing conspicuous by its absence this season is supporter discontent. The current squad is arguably the weakest at the club in its history – with a few exceptions, a significant number of the team are basically of China League One standard. Five years after buying the club, Greenland clearly don’t give much of a toss about Shenhua. There is no other explanation for relying on players the quality of Li Peng or Wang Wei on the pitch, and Zhu Jianrong, Zhan Yilin, Sun Kai and Shen Jun on the bench.

They are just not CSL standard players. It’s as simple as that and it’s frustrating that this is the case five years down the line after Greenland took over.

Nothing personal against these guys. Many of the fans get behind these players with an attitude that they are Shenhua players so they should be supported. But this is part of the problem – Greenland know they can get away with minimal investment – the fans are willing to accept such poor quality players and in doing so allow themselves to be taken for granted.

A more demanding attitude on the terrace would help.

Coming up: Wuhan v Shenhua

For this match on Sunday at 19.35 Shenhua’s selection problems are easing. Cao Yunding is back in training and is expected to play. First choice holding midfielder Sun Shilin returns from his four game suspension for god-knows-what in the derby. These are two significant plusses. Other than that, there’s much else news about possible selections as usual.

Expect Cao Yunding to replace Wang Wei from last week’s lineup, and Sun Shilin to come in for Cong Zhen in the middle of the middle, and probably Gio in for Romero this week, behind Ighalo. Zhang Lu will probably continue on the right. The main question is will Jiang Shenlong start again.

Predictions? The last time this fixture took place, it was one of the most entertaining games NTN has seen – Shenhua pulled off an amazing come back to score three goals in the last 25 minutes of the game to draw 3-3. Don’t miss it in the video below.

NTN predicts another draw this time, but with less goals: 1-1.

A leading international commentator on Chinese football frequently quoted by the world's top media. Offers piercing and resolutely honest insights into the bustling crossroads where football, society, economics and politics meet in contemporary China. Based in Shanghai since 2005, observer of the Chinese game since 2000.

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