Stranger things: changes ahead for Shanghai Shenhua and SIPG after upside down (but successful) seasons
Despite a stadium fire, a misfiring forward and a fiery manager, both of Shanghai’s Chinese Super League sides secured a seat at the Champions League table, which is all either would have really expected at the start of the season
Football, we’re always told, is a funny old game. The only problem is that they never tell you which kind of funny it is. Should you laugh, cry or warn the kids to stay away?
In the case of both of the Shanghai sides in the Chinese Super League perhaps all of the above.
At the start of the season expectations were cautiously optimistic after incoming manager Gus Poyet and Carlos Tevez were added to the fray but somehow Shenhua were out of the AFC Champions League before the Chinese Super League season had even started, losing to Brisbane Roar in the play-offs.
Shenhua did win their opening game of the league campaign 4-0 but that was a false dawn and by the end of March the only thing burning bright was their home ground: Hongkou Stadium was literally ablaze.
The fire damage meant six away games on the bounce for Poyet’s boys and when they did return home in May? A 3-1 loss to rivals SIPG without Carlos Tevez, who was enjoying the first of what would become a series of trademark absences.
The summer was a long one. An uncharacteristic 8-0 hammering and FA Cup wins over Beijing Guoan and Shandong Luneng were interspersed with losing to the same teams in the league and by mid-September, after four defeats on the spin in the league, Poyet was gone.
SIPG were up next and worse was to come in the form of a 6-1 loss at Shanghai Stadium. It was so bad that local boy Cao Yunding, who had clashed with fans earlier in the season, wrote an open letter of apology to the Shenhua faithful.
While Poyet had left and Tevez had left more than once albeit always seeming to return, Shenhua edged the city’s other team Shanghai Shenxin over two legs in the Cup semi and saw a slight upturn in results under new boss Wu Jingui, finishing the season by putting nine past the two teams who would be relegated to League One, Liaoning Whowin and Yanbian Funde.
So with the season over and a couple of weeks before the Cup final, what better idea than a friendly? South Korea’s Jeju United provided the opposition and duly ran out 7-1 winners. Hardly the ideal preparation for any game, let alone for the biggest game of the season and a chance for a first FA Cup since 1998, which also happened to be against the cross-town rivals who have already beaten you twice this season.
Over at Shanghai Stadium, if you look across the three competitions they played, SIPG improved in many ways. They finished second in the league, rather than third the season before, and secured Champions League football once again, for only the third time in their history.
They were also the division’s top scoring side, with fan favourite Wu Lei finishing joint second top scorer in the CSL with 20 goals, once more the highest scoring Chinese player in the league and nominated for AFC Player of the Year for the second year in a row.
Meanwhile, Hulk was one of only two players in the league to reach double figures in both goals and assists.
In the AFC Champions League SIPG took 12 points from the group, finishing runners-up to Urawa Red Diamonds on goal difference and qualifying for the knockouts for a second year.
Victory over Jiangsu Suning eased them into the quarters where the reward was a tie against bogey team Guangzhou Evergrande.
As if to prove that this was a year of improvement, despite the conspiracy theories, red cards and two crackpot scores – a 4-0 win at home and a 5-1 loss in the return leg – SIPG advanced to the semis via penalty shoot-out for a reunion with Urawa and the chance of a place in the final.
That was a game – well, two games – too far. Urawa, the eventual champions, won 2-1 over the two legs but SIPG had gone their furthest in the competition yet and Hulk scored nine goals.
There was progress in the FA Cup too and another notable win over Evergrande, this time 6-2 on aggregate – including a 4-1 win away at Tianhe Stadium in the second leg – to set up a dream final with Shenhua, a team they had beaten twice in the league.
But the dream was to end up a nightmare for SIPG. Obafemi Martins ensured Shenhua took a 1-0 lead into the second leg and despite a late rally taking the return leg to extra time, Shenhua took the final on away goals.
Rally would prove appropriate as manager Andre Villas-Boas – who seemed to have reached the end of his rather short tether several times during the season – would quit to do just that, leaving the club to take part in the Dakar rally.
So despite arguably their best season yet, SIPG are back to square one. They will start the next with another new manager in the form of the man who replaced AVB at Porto, Vitor Pereira, and he will no doubt be weighed down by the same lofty expectations of silverware, despite his press conference promise of delivering a trophy.
For the blue side of the city, it’s similarly strange. A first trophy for 19 years was something to celebrate and doing it over the noisy neighbours made it all the sweeter.
But there is also a fear that the Cup will merely paper over the longstanding cracks of a board that the fans have vocally opposed and who admitted Poyet was not even their second choice.
At least the disappointing Tevez appears to have played his last game. That will free up the wage bill but what Shenhua do with that, much like the fortunes of both Shanghai sides next season, is anyone’s guess.