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June 22, 2019

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Shenhua stares into black hole of relegation

Neither Shanghai Greenland Shenhua fans nor its officials have truly experienced the worry of relegation in the club’s 25-year history.

But at second-last on the 16-team table with just nine points from 13 rounds, alarm bells are ringing for the Chinese Super League side. The club is in urgent need of new foreign players who can lift the team out of its embarrassing predicament.

When it named Quique Sanchez Flores as the new head coach at the beginning of the 2019 season, the club set no specific goal for the Spaniard, but it surely didn’t expect the club to fall into the relegation zone coming to the mid-point of the season.

Shenhua’s 1-2 loss to league leader Beijing Sinobo Guo’an in the capital last week was the ninth game in a row that the team failed to win three points. Holding a one-point advantage over last-placed Tianjin Tianhai after 13 rounds, Shenhua needs at least six or seven victories in the second half of the season to maintain a spot in the top league.

“Of all the six years I’ve been with the club, this season is the most difficult one,” said club president Wu Xiaohui, who called some local media and fan representatives for a meet at the end of last month to analyze Shenhua’s “crisis.” “We are in a situation I never expected.”

In Wu’s memory, the last time Shenhua sank into the bottom of the table was in 2015 when it placed 11th on 15 points after 13 rounds. French manager Francis Gillot handed in his resignation letter, which was not accepted by the club.

The team then held tight and managed to finish sixth that year. They were also the runner-up in the 2015 CFA Cup. The club accepted Gillot’s resignation at the end of the season and replaced him with Spaniard Gregorio Manzano.

The 2017 season was not easy either. Uruguayan manager Gus Poyet was shown the door by the club in the middle of the season.

Local coach Wu Jingui took over. Despite an 11th-place finish in the league, Shenhua defeated city rival SIPG in a two-leg CFA Cup final that year for its second cup trophy after 19 years.

Wu lead the team to a seventh-place finish last year before being replaced by Flores. However, The former Watford and Espanyol manager is yet to find a steady format for the team 13 rounds into the 2019 season.

Flores has been changing the starting squad frequently in the past three months. In last week’s match against Beijing, Shenhua’s defensive line lacked organization despite players’ dedication.

Captain Giovanni Moreno became Shenhua’s only competitive foreign player on the pitch given the absence of Nigerian striker Odion Ighalo who was called by his national team for the Copa America.

Colombian midfielder Fredy Guarin, who has had weight problems since the beginning of the season, has been out of form for a while.

Brazilian midfielder Oscar Romero still finds it hard to fit himself comfortably into the team.

“To introduce one or two new foreign players during the summer transfer would be the most efficient way for Shenhua to get out of the relegation zone,” said veteran football reporter and commentator Ji Yuyang.

“Shenhua introduced Flores to strike for a better position in the top half of the table. But to lead a team out of the relegation zone might not be his strong suit.”

During the meet with media and fans last month, club president Wu admitted that the new coaching team was still in the process of understating the CSL and looking for chemistry with players.

Wu said the club appreciated the manager’s effort in cultivating young players as Shenhua has been starting with three U23 players in almost all matches.

“The growth of young players will benefit the club’s future, which is, however, at the cost of its performance at the current stage,” Wu said. “The coaching team has been under big pressure … I promise that adjustments will be made soon to keep the club in the CSL.”

Wu did not say what the adjustments would be. Instead of changing the manager who still has one and half a years left on his contract, to purchase one or two new foreign players might be a more practical choice for the club. The CSL summer transfer starts July 1 and runs for a month.

According to retired Shanghai footballer Li Yan, Shenhua realized its problems long ago, but didn’t take action to solve them. “It seems to me that the club has been waiting for a turning point instead of creating one,” said Li. “It was already a bit late when they seriously realized how critical the situation has become. Also, the club has zero experience in fighting itself out of the relegation zone.”

The Chinese Football Association recently adjusted the CSL regulations over the use of foreign and U23 players. Under the new rules which take effect from the 16th round, a team can register four foreign players for one match, and three can be on the pitch at the same time. Previously, a team could only register three foreign players for a match. The new rule is in line with the AFC Champions League regulations.

As for U23 players, the new rule says a team should keep at least one U23 player on the pitch during a match.

Previously, a team had to field at least three U23 players in each game, and at least one of them should start for the match.

The previous U23 player rule aimed at giving more opportunity to younger players.

But some CSL teams used loopholes by fielding U23 players only a short playing time before having them substituted.

The adjustment of U23 players rule will somehow cut the advantage of Shenhua, as the club has comparatively richer young player resource than its CSL opponents.

Shenhua is scheduled to take on Jiangsu Suning, Guangzhou Evergrande Taobao and city rival SIPG in rounds 14-16 — and all are in the top five.

The real challenge is yet to come.


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