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.
Yet even if new look Shenhua don’t sneak into the ACL, there are still a lot of pluses to be taken out of the last six weeks. First and foremost, Shanghai came out of an absolutely crushing run of games against fierce rivals Jiangsu Sainty, Beijing Guoan and Hangzhou Greentown relatively unscathed.
Against Jiangsu in Nanjing, Shenhua equalised twi ce and by and large held firm in an intensely hostile environment during which busloads of rival fans brawled in car parks and two Sainty fans broke into a media centre to assault a Shanghainese commentator.
Having survived their visit to Jiangsu, Shenhua then returned to the Hongkou to take on Guoan and Greentown in consecutive home games with both results ending in victories that were either remarkable (Shanghai beat Beijing 3-1 despite not having a single fit striker) or historic (a 5-1 thrashing of Hanghzou).
Drogba has obviously been sensational in all of this and unlike Nicolas Anelka, who still has not scored since April, arrived all guns blazing. Against Hangzhou, his two goals were text book examples of direct running, clever use of space and deft finishing- all of which are things the Shenhua frontline have been missing in recent months.
That said, the arrival of the Ivorian has also had a strange effect on Anelka, namely that he’s actually playing well. Freed from the pressure of the biggest deal in Shanghainese sport, the Frenchman has transformed himself into an wily playmaker who drifts across the final third of the pitch, making the most of the space left to him by opposition defences too busy man marking Drogba.
Like his former Stamford Bridge striker, Anelka was excellent against Hangzhou and gleefully demonized Greentown’s frazzled backline with some utterly unexpected but glorious defence splitting passes and was the sole architect of both of Shenhua’s final two goals.
Moreover, the arrival of Sergio Batista has also been critical to Shenhua’s fortunes- arguably almost as much as Drogba. The Argentine manager has brought order to a dressing room that had previously helped get Jean Tigana sacked and established a consistent line-up that means the players finally know where they are stand with their coach and whether they’ll be in the starting XI.
The signing of Gio Moreno, a player bought from Buenos Aires based, Racing Club, (undoubtedly at the behest of Batista) has also been important and the Colombian playmaker has quickly become his manager’s envoy on the pitch due to his ability to dictate the tempo.
These are unmistakable fun times for Shenhua fans and for the first time in years, the Hongkou is packed every weekend and the matchday experience is one of defiant Shanghainese gleefully revelling in their sudden return to relevance in Chinese football. The next eight games will certainly dramatic and if Shenhua can pull of the greatest of escapes and squeeze into that final ACL spot, the rest of China will never hear the end of it.
This was written by Andrew Crawford. You can follow or interact with Andrew on twitter @ShoulderGalore. Comments below please.