Letters from Shanghai: Limitations arise and the Asian Champions League dream is lost

By Andrew Crawford, writing from Shanghai

All good things have to come to an end eventually and the long shot that was Shanghai Shenhua belatedly saving their season and qualifying for the Asian Champions League is now off the table after the team was humiliated 4-2 by the high-flying Guizhou Renhe on Sunday.

Despite the hype and the astounding levels of investment, there will be no big weekday night fixtures against the best club teams in Asia in Shanghai for the second successive season. Instead, Shenhua will have to settle for mid table obscurity and the hope that their rapidly aging star players will still have enough magic left to make things right in 2013.

This isn’t to say that things haven’t been fun along the way. Stretching from early July until October, a team that had previously been flirting with relegation suddenly burst into life and began scoring boatloads of goals whilst going unbeaten over eleven games.

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Letters from Shanghai: From relegation battles to hopes of the Asian Champions League

By Andrew Crawford, writing from Shanghai. View all letters here.

Two months into the second phase of the Shanghai Shenhua revolution, with Didier Drogba freshly installed as the team’s new alpha male, the team have gone unbeaten over seven games. It’s all very unusual for the average supporter in the blue half of Shanghai- before this recent run of form began, Shenhua had just lost to Qingdao Jonoon and were looking like they were being sucked into a legitimate fight to stay out the relegation spots.

Now, with eight games left, Shanghai are eight points away from third place and the chance to qualify for the 2013 Asian Champions League. It’s a long shot, but considering the doom and gloom that was once enveloping the Hongkou Stadium, the chance of squeezing into the ACL is a substantial improvement from the chaos and embarrassment that were in abundance in April.

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Letters from Shanghai: Drogba and Moreno outshining Anelka apathy

By Andrew Crawford, writing from Shanghai

If only to make a sweltering Chinese summer that little bit more overwhelming, the ongoing saga at Shanghai Shenhua continues to roll on and the soap opera that is the city’s biggest football club found a new plotline to explore, namely a recent game with local rivals, Jiangsu Sainty.

In the build-up to the game on Sunday night, Shenhua slipped further towards the bottom of the Chinese Super League as a result of having played one game less than the other teams around them. Whether by coincidence or design, fans of the other team in the city, Shanghai East Asia, who are top of the second division in China, then reportedly laid siege to the Shenhua message boards, taunting their cousins about the latter’s form in the CSL. Indeed, when East Asia rose to the top of the Chinese second tier (China League One), it was thought that there might be a Shanghai derby for the first time in several years in 2013. Now it is possible that East Asia and Shenhua could simply swap places.

The East Asia angle is also interesting because of how Shenhua’s little brother has helped them out in their hour of need. The globally reported signing of Didier Drogba largely overlooked one important detail- the Ivorian’s new employers already have their maximum quota of foreign players. East Asia, who are owned by Xu Genbao, a former league-winning Shenhua manager and the effective godfather of Shanghainese football stepped in to send defender, Bai Jiajun, to the Hongkou on loan whilst receiving the Bosnian midfielder, Mario Bozic, in exchange. The move benefits Shenhua immensely- not only can they clear a roster spot for Drogba but they also get the services of a talented young full-back to assist an ailing defence. Xu’s blood, according to the Shanghainese media, is still blue but Shenhua fans will be far from delighted that they had to rely on a second division club to help them get out of a fix.

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Letters from Shanghai: The Madness of chairman Zhu

By Andrew Crawford, writing from Shanghai. View all letters.

The Chinese Super League is on a brief hiatus whilst the national team tries diligently to work its way up the international rankings. It also gives Shenhua fans the chance to reflect on a season that saw expectations soar and hopeful ambitions aggressively massaged into the anticipation of a victory procession.

Not so fast.

Indeed, as the dust starts to settle and the midway point of the season exposes itself to inquiry, the team is in the bottom half of the table, its expensive French striker has scored twice all season and suddenly the new dawn has disappeared in the clouds.

Expectations are always high for traditional powers in any league but in Shanghai, this year was going to be different. The team’s owner, Zhu Jun was promising the world with the world’s sport pages as his manifesto. The great and the good of world football were soon to land in Pudong International Airport. Nicolas Anelka first and Didier Drogba a little later. Shenhua blue was soon to rule the world.

Now, with the lull in football proceedings, heads are turning back to Zhu and his false promises. Shenhua fans didn’t mind the Chinese video games mogul using the club to raise his profile nor that his company’s new release is on the front of the team’s shirt in place of a more lucrative sponsor. The catch with the da laoban (big bosses) of Chinese football is and always will be  that they play fair and give a little back to the football club that they are milking for attention, money or more often than not, both. The Shenhua chairman hasn’t and it is in these quiet moments that Shenhua fans remember how much their club has lost to one man.

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Letters from Shanghai: The team functions without its star, the media does not.

By Andrew Crawford, writing from Shanghai

The full time whistle had barely sounded when Shanghai Shenhua’s goalkeeper, Wang Dalei turned to the home fans behind him with a face of unchecked elation. Overwhelmed with relief, stalward Yu Tao fell to the ground and remained there for several minutes. A first time visitor to the Hongkou stadium might have thought that Shenhua had gone top of the league but instead, after four dire matches, the home team had managed to record a narrow 2-1 victory- only their third in eleven games.

Yet coming into the game against Renhe Guizhou, things were not as positive. Shanghai had lost their previous match, 1-0 against Henan Jiaye in farcical circumstances and the club was teetering on the edge of the relegation zone. Nicolas Anelka was suspended after picking up a yellow card in the defeat and with Shenhua’s other proven striker, Joel Griffiths out injured, the only fit forward of any note was Mathieu Manset, who had looked awful since joining the club on a six month loan from Championship side, Reading.

The arrival of Renhe in Shanghai was also significant. Previous known as Shaanxi Chanba, in early 2012, the football club was moved almost overnight from northern China to Guizhou at the behest of its owner, Jia Yongge. One of China’s richest men, Jia had decided to move his business operations further down south and in the blunt way that wealthy Chinese go about their lives, Jia simply took the football team with him despite Chanba having some of the best attendances in the country. Indeed, with Shanghai’s equally maligned owner, Zhu Jun, in the stands, last Sunday’s match was a poignant face-off between the two clubs that have probably lost the most in the ungainly scramble for control of Chinese football by various tycoons and cash flush corporations.

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Letters from Shanghai: The mediocrity remains, but is Drogba on the horizon?

By Andrew Crawford, writing from Shanghai

The dust has started to settle on the ugly coup that ousted Jean Tigana from the Shanghai Shenhua dug out last month- but that doesn’t mean things have improved.

Shenhua’s last game, another dull, uninspiring 0-0 draw against Shanghai Shenxin at the Hongkou was the fourth game in a row that the former have gone without scoring a goal. The team is currently two points from the relegation zone with a third of the season played. Their expected saviour, Nicolas Anelka has not scored since early April whilst the rest of his team mates look jaded and nervous, especially when playing infront of their home crowd. It is perhaps a backhanded compliment to the team that their best player so far has been the young goal keeper, Wang Dalei.

These days, Shenhua have a manager on the sidelines rather than on the pitch, and after Anelka’s brief managerial stint ended in disaster; the former Democratic Republic of Congo coach, Jean-Florent Ibenge, is nominally in charge. The word ‘nominal’ is important because it’s difficult to say exactly how much sway Ibenge has in the dressing room. Anelka, both by status and salary, is untouchable whilst the club’s chairman, Zhu Jun is frequently unpredictable and reactionary so it is safe to say that the new man won’t be doing too much to rock the boat.

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Letters From Shanghai: The king is dead. Long live the king.

By Andrew Crawford, writing from Shanghai

Events in Shanghai have taken a dramatic turn in the last week and suddenly a season of promise is teetering on the edge of complete chaos following a dressing room mutiny that ousted Joan Tigana from the Shenhua bench and put in its place, the team’s star player, Nicolas Anelka. No amount of experience in football betting could have prepared anyone for this. News is still creeping out as to what actually took place but regardless of what happens, no-one still picking up a pay cheque from the Hongkou Stadium is going to be coming out of this debacle smelling of roses. 

The first real signs of trouble appeared last Wednesday when it was announced that Shenhua were sacking all of Tigana’s coaching staff due to player displeasure. Whilst fans scrambled to find out why there was a sudden in-house purge, news started to spread later on Thursday night that Anelka had announced his appointment as player-manager on twitter (which is banned in China so this would have been difficult to confirm within the country initially). Cue utter chaos.

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Letters From Shanghai: Captain Anelka?

By Andrew Crawford, writing from Shanghai

With the Chinese Super League (CSL) now in full swing, Shanghai Shenhua, having spent an offseason gleefully cranking up expectations, are now being forced to finally back up their big talk - and so far it is not going well. 

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Letters from Shanghai: The non-Asian “Asian” signing

By Andrew Crawford, writing from Shanghai

Despite the city starting to slow down for the Chinese New Year, Shanghai Shenhua’s PR machine remains as busy as ever. The club’s website is more brightly coloured than usual and images of the new manager, Jean Tigana, and his star player, Nicolas Anelka, flicker across the screen whilst behind them, four silhouetted figures stand in the background. ‘Who is the next’ asks the caption in English. As you can tell, the Shanghainese don’t do subtlety.

Instead of being appreciated as remarkable coups in in their own right, the sudden arrival of Anelka and Tigana have created a storm of big money rumours and since the arrival of the Frenchmen, the club has been variously  linked with Michael Ballack, Guti and Didier Drogba. Although these stories are quickly dismissed or debunked by the club’s fans and websites like Wild East Football, they highlight that our publicity hungry chairman, Zhu Jun, enjoys the limelight too much to deny any rumour linked to the team, no matter how ridiculous it is.

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