Shanghai looking to deliver at last

As journeys go, it’s faster and smoother than the Piccadilly line from Heathrow to central London but not quite as convenient.

The celebrated Maglev train may take you from Shanghai’s Pudong airport at 270 miles per hour, a speed that makes cars driving alongside on the motorway look to be going backwards, but it terminates on the edge of downtown at Longyang Park, Shanghai’s answer to Acton.

Still, it guarantees an exciting start to any Shanghai sojourn. 

With the 2009 Chinese Super League season about to kick off, local club Shanghai Shenhua don’t really care about excitement.

They just want to become champions for the first time since 2003. It should have happened last season – and would have if former Middlesbrough striker Hamilton Ricard hasn’t missed a penalty in the final game of the season.

It’s harsh to put too much blame on the Colombian - although the club have since released him. Shanghai only won one of their last five games and were, as the Chinese say, a dragon at home and a worm away.

To make matters worse, a Kylie Minogue concert meant the vital last game against local rivals Zhejiang Lvcheng was moved from their spiritual home Hongkou Stadium to the much-disliked Yuanshen Athletics Stadium.

Kylie live, you say? Certainly, sir

So Shandong Luneng took a second championship in three years and Zhu Jun had to wait a little longer to bring the title to Shanghai.

The flamboyant businessman made his fortune through online gaming. In 2006, he was the owner of Shanghai United.

He wasn’t afraid to spend big and wild rumours emerged of bags of cash being handed out to players in the dressing room before and after matches. Then, in 2007, he bought a majority stake in the city’s top team Shenhua and merged the two clubs.

Shenhua’s fans, the Blue Devils, were already upset at the fact that local rivals Shanghai Inter had relocated to Xi’an and deprived them of their derbies. (This was no 60-mile Wimbledon-to-Milton-Keynes move – at almost 1,000 miles apart it would even take the Maglev nearly four hours.)

Now the Blue Devils were really hopping mad. They either boycotted the stadium or stayed to boo the United players now wearing the blue shirts of Shenhua.

With a playing staff approaching 60, chaos reigned – not helped by the hiring and subsequent firing of coach Wu Jingui, a real gentleman and scholar of the game.

"Shirt seller! Over here!"

Good results always help fans forget, and in 2008 Shanghai were challenging from the first week. Now, after a busy winter of transfer activity, hopes are high that they will more than challenge this season.

Despite the economic downturn, Zhu has invested around £4m in the team as he aims to fight off the expected challenge from rivals Beijing Guoan, as well as big-spending Tianjin Teda and defending champions Shandong.

Among the signings are Vyacheslav Hleb (the brother of a certain Barcelona star), Bulgarian defender Yanko Valkanov, Argentine striker Hernan Barcos and Australia’s Olympic skipper Mark Milligan.

While the coach is now Jia Xiuguan –Wu was “released due to health grounds” halfway through last season - these are very much Zhu’s signings.

After Barcos was blasted by the fans for his performance against Singapore Armed Forces in the Asian Champions League (harshly, considering he scored twice in a 4-1 win), an indignant Zhu was quick to support his striker.

Barcos bewails another miss

"I am angry with these comments,” Zhu told local media. “Barcos scored twice so how could we ask for more on his debut? Drogba at Chelsea wastes much more but he scores when you really need a goal. That is enough. We should treat all our players with forgiveness and patience."

Like many rich owners, Zhu’s personal fortune is shrinking: in 2008, he was listed by Forbes as China’s 328th richest man, down from 112th in 2004, and he is reported to have suffered like most others in the recent economic downturn.

It remains to be seen how much patience he has. This could be Shanghai’s year – and perhaps it needs to be.

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