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Agony as Shenhua blow championship in closing minutes

Just one victory in their last five games and a shocking penalty miss saw Shanghai Shenhua hand the Chinese Super League title on a plate to rivals Shandong Luneng on the final day of the 2008 season on Sunday afternoon. (video highlights)

Shandong started the day two points ahead of Shenhua in the table, and were expected to beat mid-table Guangzhou at home to wrap up the title. Shenhua knew that a victory against local rivals Zhejiang Lvcheng, combined with Shandong failing to win their match, would see them snatch the title on goal difference. So with an air of tension, all games in the final round of the season kicked off simultaneously at 3.30pm, to avoid the potential for match-fixing allegations to arise if teams already knew the results of other games affecting their final standing.

Thanks to Kylie Minogue, Shenhua were playing at the soulless Yuanshen Athletics Stadium in Pudong instead of their spiritual home, Hongkou. An air of tension filled the air, as home fans had one ear on how events were unfolding elsewhere – news of a goal in Shandong’s match against Guangzhou would surely poop the party. Just to add even more spice to the already flavorsome mix, it was also a local derby for Shenhua as their opponents, Zhejiang Lvcheng, are based just down the road in Hangzhou. Ominously, since their promotion to the Chinese Super League last year, all the previous three league games between Shenhua and LvCheng had been drawn.

Shenhua started positively and indeed spent much of the first half camped in their opponents box. It was no surprise when Paraguyan striker Justo Rolando Meza put the home side in front after 10 minutes with a well-taken header. Shenhua continued to push forward, only for Zhejiang to equalize after a rather fortuitous break of the ball fell to Algerian striker Karim Benounes who slotted home neatly to send the sizable away support behind the goal into raptures.

Somewhat perturbed, The Blue Devils, Shenhua’s largest fan group, then took advantage of their opponents being the only other team in the league to come from a city speaking a similar dialect to their own, by abusing the visiting fans in Shanghainese. An angry chanted chorus “Lvcheng Dui, gang lu Dui!” (Greentown team, stupid cock team!” This drew amusement from the rest of the derby match crowd.

Encouraged by news that Shandong were being held 0-0, Shenhua pushed forward again. Chance after chance went begging, before Cheng Liang finally put the Blues in front again on the stroke of time with another header. Half-time, 2-1 to Shenhua, and critically, Shandong were still drawing 0-0 with Guangzhou. The stands buzzed with excitement at half time – Shenhua were 45 minutes away from their third league title.

The second half followed the first half closely. Shenhua controlled the game and wasted numerous chances. On around the 65 minute mark, a blatant handball resulted in a penalty to Shenhua and the chance to put the result beyond doubt. The anticipation was electric as Hamilton Ricard stepped up to take the penalty. The crowd waited with baited breath and bit their nails. Zhejiang’s players looked on knowing the game was as good as over if it went in. All eyes in the stadium focused on the ball as it was placed on the spot. With the score still tied at Shandong, the stakes couldn’t be higher. Ricard stepped up….

And fired his shot right at the Zhejiang keeper.

The crowd could scarcely believe Shenhua had scorned yet another chance to make the game safe. And it was inevitable when Zhejiang equalized with just 15 minutes to go, the product of some rather slack defending at the back. Shenhua huffed and puffed for the remainder of the game, and young striker Gao Lin spurned a great chance when he elected to dummy the ball rather than shoot; his attempt to wrong-foot the visitors defence failed as there was no team-mate there to take advantage. Try as they might, Shenhua could not find a winner. And with that… the title slipped through their grasp. Final whistle – Shenhua 2-2 Zhejiang Lvcheng – and, cruelly, Shandong 0-0 Guangzhou. In other words, had Shenhua won, the title was theirs and the whole season essentially turned on Ricard’s missed penalty.

If the game itself was not hard enough to swallow, the run-in made things even worse. Shenhua had their chances to at least go into the final game in pole position. But they won just one of their last five games, and even contrived to throw away a four goal lead in their match relegated Liaoning two weeks ago, who scored four times in the last 30 minutes to draw 4-4. A 0-0 draw to fallen giants Dalian last week did Shenhua no favours either – it was a game Shenhua were expected to win, Dalian only just avoiding relegation this year.

Shenhua have the consolation of joining Shandong, Beijing Guo’an and Tianjin Teda in next seasons revamped Asian Champions League. But that was scant consolation for the fans, some of whom found the disappointment all too much. Xiao Tan, a 26-year-old Blue Devils member, said: “I cried today. At least if we had won, and Shandong won, it would have been better. But not like this. And that penalty miss… good heavens. I have no idea.”

Shenhua’s reputation for being bottlers and under-achievers is, it has to be said, well-deserved. Former coach Wu Jingui told the Shanghai Daily, “Shenhua takes the lead but doesn’t know how to keep it. It has been a problem for the team for years,” adding, “The team tends to make mistakes at critical moments.”

Shandong overtake Shenhua in the all-time championship table to claim their third title, on the back of wins in 1999 and 2006. A new season awaits Shenhua however and the team can take comfort from some very encouraging performances of attacking football. If they can carry this form into next year, they will once again be among the front runners.

Next season’s Chinese Super League will offer more derby action to Shenhua – Jiangsu Shuntian of Nanjing return to the top league after an absence of 15 years. The 2009 season will kick off next March.

This post was originally published on Shanghaiist.

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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