By Dapeng Liang
Never before has the Chinese Super League (CSL) received such widespread attention than it has ahead of the 2012 campaign, which begins on Saturday. Nicolas Anelka's arrival has been the catalyst, while there has been plenty of other big names heading for the Middle Kingdom, including Jean Tigana, Henk ten Cate, Peter Utaka and Fabio Rochemback.
A number of the world's most high-profile stars were also linked with the CSL, such as Didier Drogba, Robert Pires and Guti, although a lot of that speculation has proven to be hot air. Now, finally, the rumours can be put aside to make way for the action to kick off in China, with several clubs trying to make ground on 2011 runaway champions Guangzhou Evergrande.
Football Weekly held a poll asking all current CSL players to vote for their title favourites. A total of 56.6 per cent tipped Guangzhou to retain their crown, while Beijing came in second with 14.4%, with Shandong Luneng in third earning 12.3%. Here, Goal.com looks at the main title candidates.
Outs: Yang Hao (Guizhou Renhe, loan), Guo Zichao (Guangdong Sunray Cave), Yang Yihu (Guizhou Renhe), Chen Jianlong (Shanghai Shenxin, loan), Zhang Tianlong (Shenzhen Ruby)
Chinese champions Guangzhou Evergrande shocked the Asian football world in their debut AFC Champions League (ACL) game on Wednesday with a stunning 5-1 away win at Jeonbuk Motors. They also lifted the Chinese Super Cup late last month to send out a warning to their rivals is still the favourites for the 2012 title.
Guangzhou have retained their foreign players during the off-season, although it is reported that they are looking to sign Dortmund striker Lucas Barrios midway through the term. It is a sign of a growing club that all five of their foreign players are below 30 years of age. Their qualities are evident in ACL matches, and they are proving that they did not move to China to see out their careers, but to remain in a competitive environment as shown by Dario Conca and Cleo's (pictured) good form early this season and Muriqui's 2011 CSL MVP award.
The club also has a vast number of current China internationals, particularly in defence and midfield, so much so they were willing to allow a rival club sign Yu Dabao recently. This situation is indicative of Guangzhou's financial might. Indeed, many expect Evergrande to win the Chinese title again, but their ambitions on the continent could be the real story.
Outs: Yan Xiangchuang (Dalian Shide), Walter Martínez (Chongqing FC), Joel Griffiths (Shanghai Shenhua), Ladji Keita (Braga), Lu Jiang (Chongqing FC), Zhang Yonghai (Guangdong Sunray Cave), Wang Haozhi (Henan Construction), Ma Chongchong (Henan Construction)
Portuguese boss Jaime Pacheco had a successful campaign last year, but the new season could be much more complicated for him and Guoan. Beijing's opening ACL performance, a 2-1 loss to Ulsan Hyundai, has already attracted plenty of scrutiny.
The criticism is that the team are just not prepared enough for the new season, as evidenced by the numerous mistakes they made in the game against Ulsan. And the club did not strengthen the squad significantly in the off-season following the departures of Walter Martinez and Joel Griffiths, with only Reinaldo and Andrija Kaluderovic arriving to lead the frontline. There is a feeling that the void left by the Honduran and Australian will be hard to fill.
Newcomer Mao Jianqing is a quality attacker, while experienced China international Shao Jiayi has returned to the club after a decade in Germany and that should give the team a major boost. The title may be beyond them in 2012, but qualifying for the ACL is an achievable goal.
Outs: Luis Salmeron (Talles de Cordoba), Wen Huyi (Shenyang Shenbei), Xin Feng (Wuhan Fall), Juan Camillo Angulo (released), Dong Xuesheng (Dalian Aerbin), Facundo Pérez Castro (Guangdong Sunray Cave), Eisner Ivan Loboa (Deportivo Pasto)
There's been widespread changes at Shanghai Shenhua after their dismal 11th-place finish in 2011. French striker Nicolas Anelka (pictured) is the biggest name to ever join China's Super League and he is expected to make a big impact at the Yangtze River club.
Alongside the Frenchman is another newcomer Joel Griffiths, who was a standout last season at big-city rivals Beijing Guoan. The Australian's switch to Shanghai has stirred up a few fans, too. Among the other foreign additions, Brazilian defender Moises has Uefa Champions League experience with Braga while Frenchman Mathieu Manset has joined on a three-month loan, which leaves the door open for a mid-season swoop for owner Zhu Jun's big target Didier Drogba.
If the Ivorian follows his former Chelsea strike partner to Shanghai, Shenhua could be the hottest side in Asia. But the problem with the team is that the local players' qualities are not nearly as good as clubs like Guangzhou or Shandong Luneng. New coach Jean Tigana should get the team better organised but he has much to do to make them genuine title contenders.
Outs: Jiao Zhe (Beijing Guoan, loan), Li Leilei (retired), Wang Liang (Liaoning Whowin), Deng Zhuoxiang (Jiangsu Sainty), Ricardo (Pacos Ferreira), Julio Cesar de Leon (Montagua), Liu Zhao (released)
As one of the most successful clubs in China, Shandong Luneng only managed a fifth-place finish in the 2011 campaign while they also lost the FA Cup final to Tianjin Teda, subsequently missing out on the 2012 ACL. The club will look to bounce back in 2012 and have already made a bold move, hiring former Chelsea and Barcelona assistant coach Henk ten Cate to lead them.
The Dutchman is a strict coach and has made many changes to the squad. He's also indicated he may offer more youth players a chance this season due to the limited number of big arrivals. This may be good news, considering Shandong's youth system is seen as the best in China. The team's lack of ACL duties, too, will allow them to focus on the CSL and they are likely to be challenging near the top.
Outs: Zhao Xuri (Guangzhou Evergrande), Mao Jiianqing (Beijing Guoan), Fabio Firmani (released), Wilson (Vegalta Sendai), Milos Bajalica (Kyoto Sanga)
It's been a big off-season for Guizhou Renhe, previously known as Shaanxi Chanba, who have re-located to the south-west province and renamed themselves. They have received a positive welcome in their new home, as well as a significant boost in funds from local sponsors, all of which has created an optimistic feeling around the club. Former China boss Gao Hongbo signed two Levante players in Nano (pictured) and Rafa Jorda, and while they may not be big names they should add quality at this level. Bosnia international striker Zlatan Muslimovic looks a good addition, too.
In Hongbo, Guizhou boast a formidable local coach, having previously guided China to famous victories over South Korea and France. He will be out to prove to the Chinese Football Association that they were wrong in firing him last year. He's also added one of his favourite players, Yang Hao to the squad. Losing talents such as Mao Jianqing and Zhao Xuri is rather disappointing but this side could be one of the dark horses to challenge Guangzhou this term.