Looking back and ahead to tomorrow’s CSL 2018 opening round

A very exiting year of introduction to the Chinese Super League

A true rollercoaster of a year that gave me the greatest (the birth of my daughter), as well as the most horrible (the loss of someone very close to me) experiences of my life has come to and end and although these events, in combination with the workload of university, has left far too little time for creating quality content for this blog during the last nine months, I still wanted to take a look in the rearview mirror and ponder my first year of following the Chinese Super League as I ring in the 2018 Year of the Dog ahead of tomorrow’s start of the season (disregarding Evergrande’s 4-1 thrashing of Shenhua in the Super Cup, as all matches of that format anywhere around the globe are simply glorified friendlies). The CSL has certainly been a positive addition to my football viewing spectra. Not the easiest league to wrap your head around, for example the untimely and often unclear changes of rules and regulations are confusing for the fans, and must make even short-term planning nearly impossible for the clubs, but the style of play is generally highly entertaining and the matches are often as unpredictable as the future structure of the league itself. The CFA “Tax” on big foreign player purchases has decisively slowed down spending and the recent specifications of its application efficiently stopped any attempt to maneuver around it.

The seventh consecutive league title for Guangzhou Evergrande may have been predictable, but the road leading up to it was anything but straight. After a slow start, Evergrande got back on top but then squandered numerous opportunities to put distance between themselves and Shanghai SIPG. The challengers were, however, hell bent on letting the reigning champions remain just that and the Cantonese giants could jog the title home with two rounds remaining.

I started out knowing little about the CSL, apart from the high-profile players brought in the last few years. Hulk’s transfer from Zenit S:t Petersburg to SIPG had me raising my eyebrows as I held him as one of the top players in all of Europe and, since Paulinho made his surprise move from Evergrande to FC Barcelona in august, he has reigned supreme in the Middle Kingdom, as far as individual quality goes. Carlos Tévez’s farcical one-year stint went pretty much as I expected when I first read about it, Alexandre Pato was re-born and Eran Zahavi was sensational all year but I prefer to focus on the domestic talent I have come to know. A few players have really caught my eye, such as SIPG´s Wu Lei who more than held his own amidst the Brazilian imports and Gao Lin and Huang Bowen has put in some solid performances for Evergrande but it’s their teammate Yu Hanchao who has become my personal favourite Chinese player. The winger is often a joy to watch with great vision and some top drawer end-product. Unfortunately for China´s national side, none of the players mentioned are in the early stages of their careers, bringing us to the U23-player rule announced ahead of last season. Since I evaluated said rule halfway through the season, I won’t dwell on it but simply repeat my conclusion that it has done little, if anything, to further the development of young Chinese players as few players who wouldn’t have played anyway got more than the bare minimum amount of time on the pitch because of it.

In regards to the clubs, Beijing Guoan and Guizhou Hengfeng Zhicheng were the two that surprised me the most in terms of quality. Both sides finished mid-table but If either was to add consistency to their repertoire they could make a serious go at the ACL-spots this year. Guoan especially have looked like they had a lot more to give as they can give any side in the league a real run for their money on a good day and with the very costly (including “tax”) investments in Bakambu and Viera from Villarreal, they should be able to see substantial improvement to last season’s 8th place finish. Guangzhou Evergrande have yet to find a convincing replacement for Paulinho and are now one of a few equal contenders for the top spot that has been theirs to lose for so many years. Shanghai SIPG and Hebei China Fortune are my main challengers and I my money will be on the Shanghainese to clinch the title, mostly because of Hulk. Tianjin Quanjian and Jiangsu Suning both have a fair bit of talent will be the sides fighting Guoan for a possible opening at the 3rd AFC Champions League spot. The imminent takeover by Wanda Group, and the big names brought in late in the transfer window, makes the newly promoted Dalian Yifeng an interesting addition to the top flite, although I have no real basis for making any further estimation of either them, nor the other newcomer, Beijing Rehne.

Kickoff for the first round is tomorrow at 19:35 local time (12:35 CET) and we really hit the ground running with a Guangzhou-derby between Evergrande and R&F. Game on!

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