For the first time since 2006, Shanghai will have three CSL teams to watch, meaning derbies galore – but unlike last year, none are expected to be in the running for the championship.
If you recently heard an enormous explosion somewhere in Shanghai, that was the sound of Shenhua FC crashing and burning in a stunning manner. A disastrous few months saw Shanghai’s biggest team lose not only ex-Chelsea forwards Drogba and Anelka, but also their 2003 league title due to a match-fixing scandal ten years ago. Shenhua will also start on minus six points this season for their part in corruption shenanigans back in the day, as will northern side Tianjin Teda.
Both these teams were tipped to struggle even before news of this punishment emerged, but Shenhua’s massively reduced transfer budget means avoiding relegation will be the name of the game. The Hongkou side recently sold two of their best Chinese players, Wu Xi and Feng Renliang, and scraped the bottom of the barrel in terms of bringing in new talent. Two 31-year-old midfielders from Beijing Guoan, Xu Liang and Wu Changqing, and 40-year-old Argentinian defender Rolando Schiavi are amongst the many new faces this season. And filling Drogba’s boots upfront is Syrian striker Firas Al-Khatib until recently playing in the Iraqi league. So don’t expect any fireworks at Hongkou Stadium this year, although it will still be the best bet for watching football in the city with a great atmosphere.
Two teams are expected to lead the charge for the CSL title this season and both will bring a host of talented foreign stars on their three visits to Shanghai. Guangzhou Evergrande, champions for the last two seasons, boast mercurial Argentine playmaker Dario Conca and former Borussia Dortmund striker, Paraguayan Lucas Barrios in their ranks. They’ve also just signed another South American attacker Elkeson, who left his native Brazil aged 23 to head to China instead of Europe, thanks to Evergrande’s real estate-derived riches. The Cantonese team also provided no fewer than 11 players for China’s national squad for their last game against Saudi Arabia in February, so the club is very much the CSL’s glamour side.
Dalian Aerbin are a relatively new club, formed in 2009 and making their way up China’s three-tier league system in record time, but they should provide the main challenge for the title this year. They were behind the biggest star signing of the close season, bringing French international Guillaume Hoarau to China from Paris Saint Germain. The north eastern side also have several other names to watch, including former Barcelona midfielder Seydou Keita of Mali, and Nigerian international Peter Utaka. Plus they’ve snatched up some of the best Chinese talent in strikers Yu Dabao and Yu Hanchao and midfielder Chen Tao.
Despite the expectation that the Shanghai teams will fight it out at the wrong end of the table, there’s still no better ticket in town to soak in some local passion and pride. The football might not be Premiership standard, but the banter is for those who get into the thick of it. Bring it on!Cameron Wilson is editor of Wild East Football, the leading English language authority on all Chinese football matters. For details, see www.wildeastfootball.net.