CSL predictions for the most unpredictable season in league history

Society & Culture

The Chinese Super League begins this weekend. Who will win? Which player will score the most goals? Who'll be relegated? We have predictions in this week's China Sports Column. Also: China-based Kunlun Red Star of the Kontinental Hockey League will be playing next season in Russia, a move that necessitates the release of its North American coaching staff.

CSL 2020 preview Chinese Super League Guangzhou Evergrande, Beijing Guo'an, Shanghai SIPG, Shanghai Shenhua
Clockwise from top left: Guangzhou Evergrande, Beijing Guo'an, Shanghai SIPG, Shanghai Shenhua

After almost half a year of waiting, Chinese soccer fans will finally be rejoicing as the Chinese Super League (CSL) makes its long-awaited return on Saturday.

With the league split into two groups — and playing a knockout tournament for the league title for the first time ever — it’s looking a little harder to predict the outcome this season.

Defending champions Guangzhou Evergrande remain the favorites for the title. Boasting seven naturalized players, the squad — on paper, anyway — is the strongest.

However, the format could hinder Evergrande. While the group stage should be comfortable for the champions, it is the knockout rounds that could throw a spanner in the works. One bad week in the quarterfinals or semis could see the club miss out on a title for only the second time in the last decade.

Beijing Guo’an could be just the club to take that title. After missing out on the championship last year on the final day, the club will be hoping to win its first league-title since 2009.

Armed with a solid squad of quality overseas players, such as Brazilian midfielder Renato Augusto and Spanish winger Jonathan Viera, a handful of consistent naturalized players, including Li Ke (Nico Yennaris) and Evergrande loanee Alan Carvalho, as well as several good young prospects who should be looking to kick on this season, Guo’an have a real opportunity to thrive in the new format.

Another club that could take advantage of the new format is Shanghai Shenhua, which finished 13th in the league last year but took solace in winning the Chinese FA Cup, which is played in a knockout format. Shenhua had to beat five teams — including a home-and-away against Shandong in the finals — to take home the trophy.

The shorter format of the league will give the big Shanghai club a chance to improve on last year’s league performance, where at times it showed some flashes of excellence but could rarely string together the consistency required to progress.

Crosstown rivals Shanghai SIPG — two years removed from a league title — still have the same conundrum as last season: how to get the best out of their elite lineup of international superstars? Hulk, Marko Arnautovic, and new arrivee Ricardo Lopes are all forwards who will cause manager Vitor Pereira a few selection conundrums. All three will expect to start and will want to start through the middle up top. While the Portuguese manager may go with two or even three central forwards on the field, the overemphasis on the attack will inevitably lead to spaces on the pitch out wide or through the midfield, leaving the defense exposed.


Champions: Guangzhou Evergrande — Have the best overall squad, a winning mentality, and is in the weaker of the two pools. The format might be unpredictable, but the smart money is still on the defending champs.

Runners-up: Beijing Guoan — Will have to beat SIPG, their main rivals in Group B, but Guo’an has a well-rounded squad that has real potential. A championship bout with Guangzhou could make for one of the biggest games the CSL has ever seen.

Third place: Dalian Pro — From a disappointing ninth last season, Dalian could be the surprise of the season. They’ll be playing at home — the only team to do so — during the group stages. Former UEFA Manager of the Year Rafael Benítez is Dalian’s manager, and could prove instrumental in the team’s success.

Golden Boot: Marco Arnautovic (SIPG) — Nine in 11 in the Austrian’s first season in China was a tidy return. If Arnie can get good service from Oscar, he can run rampant. His main rival for the golden boot will be last year’s top goal-scoring machine, Guangzhou R&F’s Eran Zahavi. The Israeli was prolific last season, but it would take a lot for him to replicate that form — though keep an eye on him.

Top Assists: Renato Augusto (Guo’an) — The boss. Runs the Guo’an midfield and often drags them through very tight games. No stranger to goals, but it was his creativity and assists that drove Guo’an to within two points of the title last year.

Top Chinese Player: Wéi Shìháo 韦世豪  (Evergrande) — The 25-year-old inverted winger could find himself with an opportunity to shine this year. Playing alongside national teammates Ai Kesen, Luo Guofu (both Brazilian naturalized players), and the goalscoring midfielder Paulinho (still Brazilian) will give him opportunities to showcase his abilities and maybe get in amongst the assists and goals.

Relegated: Shenzhen FC and Shijiazhuang Ever Bright — Both teams are just a bit naff. Unremarkable overseas stars combined with weaker domestic players spells danger for both these clubs.


Shanghai F1 likely to be canceled

Shanghai F1

After China’s General Administration for Sport announced last week that international sports events, excluding Olympic qualifying trials, would be canceled, speculation immediately began running through the motorsport community over the fate of the Shanghai Grand Prix.

Formula One is expected to reveal the Asian phase of the revised COVID-affected season next month, and the speculation had been that China would host back-to-back races in Shanghai, following the same pattern as in Austria a fortnight ago.

However, with the new government decision, the chances that Shanghai will see even a single Grand Prix this year remain slim.

For the organizers at the Shanghai International Race Circuit, the news will no doubt come as a blow, with the track hosting one of the key fixtures in the Chinese sporting calendar.

Initially postponed back in February, the race had long been rumored to be looking for an October window to hold consecutive races.

The current delayed season started three weeks ago in Austria.


Kunlun Red Star move to Russia, fire North American coaching staff

Mytishchi Arena

China’s top professional ice hockey team has moved to Russia. Kunlun will be playing next season in the Moscow satellite town of Mytishchi, after it became clear that the frequent international travel required in a regular KHL season would not be feasible.

Mytischi, according to Wikipedia, is a city of 173,000 northeast of Moscow. The Ice Palace Arena Mytischi — capacity 7,000 for hockey — is No. 2 on Trip Advisor in “things to do in Mytischi.”

The franchise had been planning for the possibility of playing in Russia or Europe for this coming KHL season, but the decision blindsided many of the players and coaching staff.

Sources from within the camp say that the majority of the non-Chinese backroom staff have been released, as Kunlun will not be trying to get these coaches Russian visas.

It remains to be seen what will happen to the playing squad, the majority of which come from North America, but morale inside the dressing room is low.

One thing that looks certain is that the club will be in the market for a Russian coaching staff to take over for the Canadian and Americans who have just been cleared out. The club announced earlier today that Russian Alexei Kovalev will be taking over as head coach for Canadian-American Curt Fraser.

The China Sports Column runs every week on SupChina.