Chinese Super League kicks off this week
4 March ~ Last year, Chinese Super League (CSL) clubs embarked on a spending spree that saw Didier Drogba and Yakubu Aiyegbeni among the major names arriving in the country. Though many have since left (Drogba has moved to Galatasaray), it doesn't mean the upcoming 2013 season – which starts on March 7 – will be any less intriguing. Flush with cash and with Marcello Lippi staying on as coach, defending champions Guangzhou Evergrande remain the team to beat. This season, though, there are some surprising clubs lining up behind them.
Lippi played a vital role in stabilising Guangzhou in 2012 when several of their expensive foreign recruits either squabbled among themselves or reacted angrily to outdated training methods. A calmer Guangzhou team will now aim to make it three championships in a row.
One team that might unseat Guangzhou is Dalian Aerbin, who last year topped off two successive promotions with a fifth place finish in their debut CSL season. Like Guangzhou, Aerbin's owners are fantastically wealthy – they recently bought local rivals Dalian Shide, one of China's oldest and most successful teams, and merged the two together. The new team, featuring former Barcelona players Seydou Keita and Fábio Rochemback, are now widely expected to be the rising force in the CSL.
It is unclear how other traditionally strong teams will fare against the CSL's nouveau riche. Beijing Guoan have made steady but unremarkable moves in the transfer market while Jiangsu Sainty, who were Evergrande's main challengers in 2012, could struggle for the same reason. Shanghai's biggest team, Shenhua are in complete disarray. After a recent investigation by the Chinese FA they were stripped of their 2003 league title – their last piece of silverware – following evidence of match fixing.
Meanwhile the current team will start this season's CSL with a six-point deficit. Their self-aggrandising owner Zhu Jun also spent pre-season threatening to move the club following a dispute with prominent shareholders. Amid the chaos, several of Shenhua's best players jumped ship, most notably Drogba and Nicolas Anelka. It seems that there wasn't as much money available as Zhu had claimed when he first started courting high profile players from Europe. Drogba and Anelka left largely because their wages were not being paid; a year after promising a team of household names, Shenhua have been reduced to making doomed bids for Birmingham City’s Marlon King.
The worst could still be yet to come for Shenhua, given that the 2013 CSL will feature three different Shanghainese teams. In particular Shanghai East Asia, who are made up mostly of local recruits from owner Xu Genbao's youth academy and have been generating substantial hype. Xu, a Shanghai native and a league-winning manager with Shenhua in 1995, is hugely popular in the city and a youthful East Asia team may even finish above Shenhua in their first ever CSL season. The third team, Shanghai Shenxin, have also generated sizeable headlines after signing Shenhua's former captain Yu Tao. This provoked a classic Zhu Jun reaction as the maligned owner threatened legal action – only to inadvertently reveal that Yu had been signed to an illegal contract. Andrew Crawford