Shanghai giants enter derby in differing moods as SIPG seek Shenhua boost
The buildup to one of the most hotly anticipated Shanghai derbies of recent times could hardly be more different for the two sides.
Shenhua, fresh from parting company with former coach Gustavo Poyet, are in need of a result to turn around a rapidly declining season. SIPG, on the other hand, come into the game having secured a place in the AFC Champions League semifinals. Though they were forced to endure a gruelling 120 minutes in the oppressive heat of Guangzhou just days ago to seal that achievement.
Add in a rivalry which has rapidly grown in importance and hostility over the past three years and all the ingredients are in place for a riveting contest to unfold.
Shanghai is the city in China most accustomed to derby fixtures, with the tradition running deep in the city since professionalism hit the sport in 1994. While Shenhua have been a constant, their rivals have changed over that period with Inter Shanghai and Shanghai Zobon now consigned firmly to the annals of history. SIPG have risen fast in recent years and now appear certain to stick around for some time to come.
It is a fixture which has become a matter of pride, with Shenhua's status as Shanghai's undisputed premier football team recently challenged for the first time. The blue side of the city undoubtedly have history and what are probably China's most loyal fanbase on their side, but they have slipped behind their rivals in results terms over recent seasons.
At the same time, SIPG have expanded their support and infrastructure in the city. Next stop for the shipping conglomerate is a permanent home for their side in a football specific stadium to match Shenhua's Hongkou ground. Each and every fixture between the pair is now approached as a battle to see who remains top of Shanghai football.
While SIPG are enjoying an unprecedented run in the AFC Champions League, their league season has fallen away over the past two months. Having been expected to push Guangzhou Evergrande all the way for the title, they now lie eight points behind their rivals and closer to third-placed Hebei than the league's summit. A run of two wins in eight games was simply not good enough to keep pace with the six-time champions.
Reaching the semifinals of Asia's biggest club competition is undoubtedly a fine achievement, but one now tainted after a midweek 5-1 defeat at Evergrande's Tianhe Stadium. Having been 4-0 up after the home leg, it should have been a formality to ensure a place in the final four. Instead, Andre Villas-Boas and his side were left with bloodied noses, reliant on a penalty shootout to advance to face Japan's Urawa Reds.
An under-pressure Villas-Boas attempted to shift blame postmatch, accusing Evergrande of a number of misdemeanours, including exerting control over the AFC. His complaints, though, did little to shift attention from his side's near capitulation in a tie which should have been done and dusted.
The opportunity is there for Shenhua to compound any lingering disappointment by preying on SIPG tiredness just four days later. Yet Hongkou is a stadium in turmoil following the departure of Poyet and a recent run of poor results, while the reappointment of Wu Jingui as caretaker coach has done little to lift spirits.
Wu has begun his tenure on the offensive, taking on Carlos Tevez for his current lack of conditioning in a move which few supporters will object to. Tevez has failed to impress since arriving in China, while his perceived lack of effort has alienated the Argentine from the Shenhua supporters. Yet Wu, with his close links to a club's much maligned board, will struggle to get fans on his side regardless of his actions.
It is to the CFA Cup that Shenhua will look to rescue their season, currently ahead after the opening leg of their semifinal with second division city rivals Shenxin. A possible meeting with SIPG awaits in the final, but Villas-Boas and his team first face another visit to the scene of their midweek struggles at Tianhe Stadium. Cup competitions currently look likely to define both teams' seasons.
Yet, coming off what has been a rollercoaster week for both, there is a sense that the derby could go a long way to influencing the mood in both camps ahead of challenges to come. Given the intensity of the fixture, neither side will wish to give an inch and both coaches will anticipate a backlash should the result go against them.
China's ambition to grow football has currently been focused on government initiatives and projects designed to boost the number of players across the country. Yet, thus far, growing football culture as a means of encouraging the sport's development has been largely overlooked.
In the Shanghai derby, China has a fixture which on a local level has the potential to inspire passion amongst increasing swathes of the population. Another high octane encounter this weekend would go a long way to increasing that draw, while firmly establishing the contest as one of Asia's finest derby fixtures.
Chris Atkins is based in China and writes for ESPN FC about the Chinese Super League. You can follow him on Twitter @ChrisAtkins_.