The current Chinese Super League (CSL) season is the most exciting for years. Off the pitch, clubs have ramped up the spending in a way not seen in East Asia since the start of the J-League. And on it, four teams – full of stars, ambition and goals – are competing for the title.
Guangzhou Evergrande were the first side to spend big to bring in European, South American and local talent and they have been the most successful, winning every title since 2011. Coached by Luiz Felipe Scolari, who arrived in June, there is a strong Brazilian streak running through the club on the Pearl River Delta, with Paulinho and Robinho recently adding to the existing South American contingent of Ricardo Goulart and Elkeson.
The 2002 World Cup-winning Scolari replaced Fabio Cannavaro, the Italian who lasted little more than six months in his first coaching role after succeeding countryman Marcello Lippi. Cannavaro did well despite numerous injury problems, but his team always looked better going forward than they were at the back. However, his biggest problem was that he was not a Brazilian at a time when the owners were deciding to head in a South American direction.
If “Big Phil” delivers their fifth title, and a second Asian Champions League crown in three years, he should at least call the Italian to say “thank you” for leaving a team in the thick of the title race and in the last eight of Asia’s biggest club competition.
The chase for the continental crown could make all the difference to Guangzhou Evergrande’s CSL title hopes. Such was their domestic dominance in 2013 that Lippi could focus solely on Asia in the latter stages. But that will not be the case this time.
This season there is plenty of competition, not least from Shanghai SIPG. Fifth last term, they reacted by bringing in Sven Goran Eriksson, and the Swede has been allowed to invest in South American stars with proven records in China, such as Dario Conca and Davi. Then, in July, he smashed the Asian transfer record and paid over $20million to sign Asamoah Gyan from Al Ain of UAE. SIPG were already finding the net pretty easily even before the arrival of the Ghanian striker, who averaged over a goal a game in the Emirates.
SIPG’s home game against Guangzhou Evergrande on September 12 could be decisive – and a chance for Eriksson to gain a modicum of revenge against Scolari, who ended England’s World Cup campaign in 2002 with Brazil and their Euro 2004 hopes with Portugal.
Shandong Luneng have been quietly keeping pace with the top two and the east-coast club has more cause than most to regret the new wave of spending that took off around 2010. That was the year Shandong won the league title for the third time in five years – the last team to do so before Guangzhou Evergrande’s period of dominance.
While coach Cuca was a little lucky to survive last season, he brought in fellow Brazilian Diego Tardelli in January and, after a slow start, the 30-year-old has started to deliver. If he continues to do so, Shandong remain an outside shout for the title.
As do Beijing Guoan, who as a club were initially a little sniffy about the new money flowing into the domestic game and have taken a more low-key approach under Spanish boss Gregorio Manzano. In 2014, they pushed Guangzhou Evergrande to the final game of the season and, despite a hiccup in July, are still in this term’s race.
Nobody else is going to make the top four, but Shanghai Shenhua will want to finish as high as possible. Desperate for a return to former glories after years of mid-table mediocrity, Didier Drogba and Nicolas Anelka arrived in 2012 but made little impact in their short stay. Tim Cahill was signed in February this year and, in July, around $16m was enough to secure the services of Demba Ba, who was joined by former Liverpool and Juventus star Mohamed Sissoko.
Such stars and excitement mean more fans, and average attendances this season are touching 23,000 – the best in Asia, given that it’s hard to include the Indian Super League as it has just eight teams, lasts
only 10 weeks and has been around for just a year.
With a sense that there is still more to come, for now Chinese fans are just enjoying the big names, the big games and a title race that is set to go to the wire.
by John Duerden