Title would be nice; so would avoiding relegation
Updated: 2013-03-07 07:42
By Wang Zhenghua in Shanghai (China Daily)
The departure of its best players and a six-point deficit before the season even starts mean Shanghai Shenhua faces its most difficult season in the Chinese Super League.
Just days before the new CSL season, which begins on Friday, the Shanghai club completed its recruitment of domestic and foreign players to fill openings left by the departure of Cote d'Ivoire striker Didier Drogba, French striker Nicolas Anelka and former captain Yu Tao.
Instead of claiming it is shooting for the CSL crown or claiming an AFC Champions League slot, Shenhua is staying low key this season.
With six points deducted as part of the penalties meted out by the Chinese Football Association due to a massive match-fixing scandal a decade ago, the club may have to fight just to avoid relegation.
The departure of the stars and the disgrace caused by the stripping of its 2003 Chinese first division title - another penalty from the scandal - have also dampened the fervor of many of its supporters, though not all are pessimistic.
The chances of Shenhua being relegated are slim because "a lean camel is still bigger than a horse", said Li Yan, a soccer commentator.
A team with such profound soccer resources and culture should not fall into the relegation zone, and good performances could help Shenhua secure a ranking as high as sixth among the 16 teams, said Li, a former national-team player.
A perennial contender from China's financial center, Shenhua has been runner-up three times in the CSL - in 2005, 2006 and 2008 - and was third in 2010.
The enlisting of Anelka and Drogba shot the team to international fame in 2012, though it later turned out that the low standard of play in China was a hindrance to keeping the top players.
In addition to a pay squabble that led Drogba to join a Turkish club earlier this year, Shenhua was plagued by a dispute among its owners, a players strike and friction between Anelka and former head coach Jean Tigana during the 2012 season.
With mediocre performances, the team finished ninth last season with 38 points, and it put much pressure on its largest investor, Zhu Jun, who, with his company The9 Limited, bought a majority share of the club in 2007 and enlisted Anelka in 2011 and Drogba in 2012.
Compared to the lofty ambitions of past campaigns, Zhu said his primary goal this season is to stay in the league.
"I have told them that our goal is to avoid relegation. We have to fight each game as a fateful match because we don't have any leeway," he said.
"If we can gain the initiative after the first three or four games, the morale can improve and the following games could be easier."
Zhu also said Shenhua had learned from past lessons about relying too heavily on foreign stars and now was working on developing local talent.
"Our past efforts have proved to be unsuccessful," he said. "We have to try a new method. Without trying, how do you know if it will work or not?"
Shenhua's largest obstacle this season is being six points behind all sides other than Tianjin Teda, which was also given a six-point deduction for fixing a 2003 league game.
Shenhua director Zhou Jun said the points deficit had a great impact on the players. "The new season will be very difficult, and to start minus six points is something we must face up to," he said.
The club's spokesman, Ma Yue, said the loss of points forced Shenhua to primarily aim at staying in the league. After securing that, "we will fight game by game and try to go as far as we can", he said
Colombian midfielder Giovanni Moreno has described the new season as matches between "a bicycle and cars".
The loss of major players has downgraded the club from a car to a bicycle, and the six-point deduction worsened the situation, Moreno said in a recent interview.
Analysts claim that although the points deduction has dashed the club's dreams of a title, it should still avoid relegation, but its first three games, all in Shanghai, are critical.
Shanghai will play Tianjin in the first round. Its second game, against Shanghai Shenxin, should see it backed by a large number of Shenhua supporters.
Liaoning Whowin, its rival in the third round, is also not in peak condition, having lost two key Chinese strikers.
Taking an overall look at the season, the six-point deduction is not all that damaging, commentator Li says.
"Apart from Guangzhou Evergrande, all of the other teams are about the same," he said. "Shenhua is capable of catching up the lost amount of points after the first three games."
Some rivals regard Shenhua as a definite threat this year.
Li Tie, an assistant coach at Evergrande, said Shenhua will be a powerful rival to Evergrande, but more so in the CFA Cup competitions rather than the league.
Achieving a top-three finish in the CSL to secure a slot in AFC Champions League will be difficult for Shenhua, but taking a shortcut to the tournament by winning the Cup title is not out of reach, he said.
"Some sides may not value the CFA Cup, but Shenhua is different. The champion of the CFA Cup qualifies for the AFC Champions League and that is an attractive target for Shenhua," he said.