Shanghai Shenhua have started improving
9 August ~ What a difference six weeks makes. In June, an injury ravaged, underperforming Shanghai Shenhua were in the relegation zone of the Chinese Super League and being booed off the pitch by their own supporters. Now, the team is up to eighth in the table, playing in front of capacity crowds for the first time in several years and enjoying a five-game unbeaten run. While that might not seem impressive, the context is important. Four of the games were derbies where social, historical and political rivalries between the various cities involved create a highly charged atmosphere.
One of the galvanising factors behind this upturn is Didier Drogba. He has become the cornerstone of a young team since arriving a month ago. In the 5-1 win over Hangzhou Greentown he was close to unstoppable, scoring twice on his home debut. A packed Hongkou Stadium gave their new hero a standing ovation at the full-time whistle.
This must have come as a relief to his old Chelsea strike partner Nicolas Anelka. The Frenchman was subject to enormous expectations when he arrived in Shanghai in January, only for poor form and injuries to restrict him to two goals all season. During the slump, Anelka embodied the team's malaise as pockets of the Shenhua fanbase began to turn on him.
At one point during a recent Chinese FA Cup game, a coin was thrown at him by ultras sitting in the North Stand. The arrival of Drogba means that Anelka is not expected to carry the team alone. Though still in possession of the captain's armband, he seems relieved to no longer be alpha male in the Shenhua dressing room.
Another crucial factor in the team's resurgence has been the steady hand of manager Sergio Batista. When he arrived in May the club was a shambles, following the ugly dressing room coup that ousted Jean Tigana. The former Argentina national coach has established a settled line-up and started to get the most out of his Chinese players.
Batista has also shown tactical boldness at crucial times during the club's recent run of form. Against Beijing, while both his main forwards watched from the stands (Drogba had only arrived in Shanghai that day and Anelka was injured), Batista sent his team out in a 4-6-0 formation that allowed Shenhua to flood the midfield, dictate the tempo and score goals in smash-and-grab fashion.
In the following home game against Hangzhou, with the visitors furiously trying to make up a 3-1 deficit, instead of playing it safe Shenhua's manager put on a third striker and was rewarded with two late goals.
Title aspirations are long dead but there is renewed hope that Shenhua can save their season. With ten games remaining, Shanghai's biggest team are still within eight points of third place and a spot in next season's Asian Champions League.
This isn't to say that Shenhua aren't still a woeful defeat, an injury or an outburst from Drogba or Anelka away from collapsing back into anarchy but, for now, Shenhua are playing exciting football in a noisy stadium. It might still be a circus in Shanghai but it doesn't mean it's not fun. Andrew Crawford