By Peter Davis | Chinese Football Editor
|THE 2013 CHINESE SUPER LEAGUE
The Chinese Super League, formerly Jia-A, tops a three tier football pyramid in China above League One and League Two that is moving toward it’s twentieth year. 16 teams will battle for the title, three additional spots in the Asia Champions League and two unlucky sides will go down.
Shandong Luneng have the most top-level titles with four which won’t change in 2013 as their nearest rivals, Guangzhou Evergrande, have two to their names. Shanghai Shenhua would also have two but for being stripped of their 2003 title due to match fixing. Another side very much of note, Dalian Shide have eight titles to their name but unfortunately have played their last game of football due to the club folding at the turn of the year.
2013 also feature the 15th Chinese F.A. Cup, and proceedings unofficially kicked off last weekend when Jiangsu Sainty beat Guangzhou Evergrande in the 11th Chinese Super Cup.
|TEAMS TO WATCH
With their bags of money and nearly half of the Chinese national team in their ranks,the Marceo Lippi-led Guangzhou Evergrande are clear favorites for the 2013 CSL title after capturing the double last year.
One side that may beg to differ are Dalian Aerbin who followed up on successive lower-league championships in 2010 and 2011 with a brave fifth-place finish in 2012. 2013 may be their year though, particularly if Evergrande are stretched in the Asian Champions League's later stages.
Aerbin and Evergrande will also be chased by a very strong pack for the ACL spots. Four-time Champions Shandong Luneng boast Radomir Antic, the only man ever to have managed Barcelona, Real Madrid, and Atletico Madrid, as manager. They've bought wisely too, adding Ryan McGowan from Hearts, striker Marius Niculae and the hugely experienced Yang Xu from Liaoning Whowin.
Guangzhou R&F have the presence of Yakubu to worry Chinese defenses and have added Chinese signings Li Jianhua, Jiang Ning, Wu Pingfeng, Li Yan (all from Evergrande) and Zhang Yaokun (Dalian Shide) to their ranks. Beijing Guoan, Guizhou Renhe and Jiangsu Sainty will also be chasing the hard-fought Asia Champions League spots.
At the other end, expect Shanghai to have a rough 2013. Three sides represent the city: Shenxin, East Asia (now known as SIPG) and Shenhua. Shenxin should actually be in League One, but earned a reprieve due to Dalian Shide disbanding and have capitalised on this luck by bringing in the highly rated Kieza from Nautico and Michael Marrone from Melbourne Heart in addition to Shenhua player Yu Tao, sure to get a rough reception come the local derbies. SIPG have perhaps not bought the class to stay up compared to fellow newbies Wuhan Zall and will struggle in 2013.
Shenhua meanwhile have had a mighty fall, following the global surprise of Drogba and Anelka's anticipated arrivals and swift departures, They begin 2013 already in trouble with a six point deduction for a ten-year-old match fixing scandal. Some see this as unfair on the players such as goalkeeper Wang Dalei, who was 14 at the time of the incident, but others look to the example of Chengdu Blades who were relegated for a similar affair in 2009. Tianjin Teda also start 2013 with a six point deduction, and both sides will find 2013 a very tough year.
|PLAYERS TO WATCH|
Lippi has already highlighted the performances of 23-year-old South Korean international Kim Young-Gwon, who will certainly be an integral part of Guangzhou Evergrande’s success in 2013. 21-year-old Chinese striker Wu Lei of Shanghai SIPG has scored 49 in 126 games for the club and could be an key performer if the newly promoted side want to stay up.
Among the foreign contingent, Aerbin’s Seydou Keita, Fabio Rochemback and Guillaume Hoarau will put fear into any back line while Yakubu will be out to improve on his nine-goal performance for R&F last season. Beijing Guoan’s Freddie Kanoute and Joffre Guerron will also have a point to prove after failing to spark since joining the capital club. Among the lesser known, watch out for Changchun Yatai’s Brazilian duo Isac and Zé Carlos who between them have 60 goals in 87 games for their previous clubs.
Allegiances are a key word in 2013; ageing Wang Changqing and Xu Liang transferred from Beijing Guoan to rivals Shanghai Shenhua whilst Huang Bowen embarks on a full season with Evergrande in a move likely to be hugely unpopular with Guoan fans. Yu Tao though may get the worst of it following his transfer from Shenhua to local rivals Shenxin.
|MATCHES TO WATCH
The Canton derby between R&F and Evergrande will be April's highlight, and while no big name China friendlies have been scheduled yet, fans can still travel to Hong Kong to watch the Premier League Asia Trophy which sees Manchester City, Sunderland and Tottenham Hotspur play South China.
But with Chinese clubs eager to sign foreign stars in the summer transfer window, it's completely within the realm of possibility that the end of the season, including Guoan's showdown with Shenhua in September, could feature a number of big names.