Chinese Super League announces opening date as another club falters

Society & Culture

Chongqing Liangjiang Athletic is no more, but plenty of Chinese professional soccer teams will be kicking off a new campaign on June 3.

Chongqing Liangjiang Athletic played in China's top domestic league last season. As of last week, the club is no more.

The Chinese Super League (CSL) will kick off this Friday after weeks of delays and uncertainty surrounding China’s top domestic league.

The season will be divided into four phases, with the first phase starting on June 3 and ending on July 12. Games during this first phase of 10 rounds will be played in COVID bubbles in Meizhou, Haikou, and Dalian.

Some encouraging news though: organizers announced that they expect local governments will allow fans in for important games, including the opening fixture that features defending champions Shandong Taishan taking on Zhejiang.

Still, expect empty stadiums for the most part, this as leagues around the world have mostly returned to playing in front of full crowds.

While match-day revenue hasn’t been the most significant part of most clubs’ revenue streams, the complete lack of ticket sales has made the financial situation difficult for many clubs.

One of those victims is Chongqing Liangjiang Athletic, which folded last week with debts of more than 300 million yuan ($45 million). The turning point came last week, when players and backroom staff took legal action over 16 months of unpaid wages, causing the club’s accounts to be frozen. “After careful deliberation by the club’s shareholders, we very regretfully decided to withdraw from the Chinese Professional Football League and disband the team,” the club said in a statement. “Thanks to all the players, coaches and staff for their hard work.”

The death of the 26-year-old Chongqing Liangjiang Athletic leaves one of China’s largest cities without a professional club.

Last month, Qingdao FC folded — shortly after the CSL announced the first delay to the season start.

Defending champions Shandong Taishan took their team photo earlier this month at their namesake mountain of Taishan

As for this season on the field — it’s hard to call.

Defending champions Shandong will start as the favorites. The club has managed to retain the services of Marouane Fellaini, who was instrumental in pushing the club to its first title in 11 years. The club also has Guō Tiányǔ 郭田雨, one of the two Chinese-born players who finished in the top 10 in goals scored last season. Despite being loaned to Portuguese Primeira side Vizela during the offseason and not playing a single game during the spell, Guo should still remain a threat for Shandong.

The club also has the best young Chinese coach in Hǎo Wěi 郝伟. The 45-year-old has built a team that plays to its strengths, with Fellaini as the focal point.

Close behind Shandong is Shanghai Port, which has also kept its quality foreign talents of Oscar and Aaron Mooy. Shanghai will hope that Mooy, who will miss the start of the season to play for Australia during crucial World Cup qualifiers, will not be too hindered by China’s quarantine policies for international arrivals.

However, the most important factor in deciding whether Port will be winning its first title since 2018 will be the performances of a defensive unit that includes Zhāng Línpéng 张琳芃, Cài Huìkāng 蔡慧康, and Wáng Shēnchāo 王燊超, as well as the national team goalkeeper Yán Jùnlíng 颜骏凌.

Beijing Guoan will once again be aiming for an elusive second Super League title. The additions of goalscorer Samuel Adegbenro from the Swedish league and attacking full back Kang Sang-woo from the K League seem like smart acquisitions that should fit into a team that has a decent Chinese core.

Leading the Guoan line will be Zhāng Yùníng 张玉宁. The 25-year-old finally started to live up to the early promise he showed in his career last season, tying Guo Tianyu as the fourth-highest goal scorer. Newly appointed manager Xiè Fēng 谢峰 will be looking to get the best out of players such as midfielder Chí Zhōngguó 池忠国, veteran captain Yú Dàbǎo 于大宝 and center back Yú Yáng 于洋. Naturalized players like Nico Yennaris (Lǐ Kě 李可), who is returning from an injury, and John Hou Sæter (Hóu Yǒngyǒng 侯永永) will need to step up if Guoan is to push Shanghai and Shandong.

One club that will be unlikely to replicate its third place from last year is Guangzhou FC.

The exodus of the club’s Brazilian naturalized players and the lack of replacements has meant that the squad looks significantly weaker than it has for two decades. Only Ty Browning (Jiǎng Guāngtài 蒋光太) remains from the batch of imported naturalized talents. Wéi Shìháo’s 韦世豪 goals will remain vital if the club is to remain competitive.

However, the biggest question for Guangzhou is whether the Evergrande-owned club will still exist by the end of the season.

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