Chinese soccer teams hope to stop dominant Guangzhou
By JOHN DUERDEN
Mar. 01, 2018
From world-renowned coaches like Fabio Capello and Manuel Pellegrini to top players like Hulk and Javier Mascherano, nearly everyone in Chinese soccer will be trying to stop Guangzhou Evergande from winning an eighth consecutive league title.
Guangzhou, however, may not be as dominant as in the past when play starts Friday. The team has struggled to replace midfielder Paulinho, who left for Barcelona in August. In two Asian Champions League games so far, Guangzhou is the only one of four Chinese teams without a win, tying with Thai club Buriram United and Japanese team Cerezo Osaka.
"The desire to win titles is still there and it comes from the players," Guangzhou coach Fabio Cannavaro said. "Players have short careers and want to look at a cupboard full of medals. We are looking forward to a good season and worked hard in winter training."
While Guangzhou has a history of starting slowly, the team's Italian coach is under pressure in his second spell at the club after being fired in June 2015 after only six months. The 2006 World Cup-winning captain was replaced by 2002 World Cup-winning coach Luiz Felipe Scolari, who delivered three league titles and one Asian championship before leaving in November. After leading Tianjin Quanjian to third last season, Cannavaro has been given a second chance.
Shanghai SIPG finished second in 2017 and could be Guangzhou's closest challenger again. Much depends on striker Hulk, who scored 26 goals in 2017, in his first full season after being signed for about $60 million in 2016.
Shanghai also has a new coach after Andre Villas-Boas resigned to participate in the Dakar Rally. He was replaced by Vitor Pereira.
"We are on the right path and we are improving," said the Portuguese coach, who will be looking for the club's first title. "It is important that we have a good start."
The biggest arrival is Mascherano. The midfielder joined Hebei China Fortune from Barcelona for less than $10 million to link up with Argentina teammate Ezequiel Lavezzi. Under former Real Madrid coach Pellegrini, Hebei is also chasing a first title.
"We are looking to progress and improve all the time," said Pellegrini, who led Hebei to fourth in 2017, a best-ever finish. "I think we have strengthened in signing an experienced player like Javier."
With Tianjin Quanjian, which finished third last season with Brazilian forward Alexandre Pato and Belgium international Axel Witsel in the mix as well as Beijing Guoan, Guangzhou could have a fight to win another title.
Competition may also strengthen given the considerable drop in spending from the 2017 winter transfer window when Chinese teams splashed out more on players than any other league in the world.
Soccer authorities, concerned about the sums involved, intervened to apply a brake on the spending. During the 2017 season, the Chinese soccer association introduced a 100 percent tax on the signings of foreign players for a fee of more than $7 million.
It is not just a desire to reduce the money being spent but to increase opportunities for young Chinese players. In 2017, the number of foreign players that could be selected for a game was reduced from four to three. In 2018, for every foreign player on the field, clubs have to select one Chinese player under the age of 23.
The biggest signing of the pre-season period was Cedric Bakambu from Spanish club Villarreal to Beijing Guoan for about $50 million. There were reports that Beijing used the money to free the player from his contract with his Spanish club to make the Congo international a free agent in order to circumvent the "transfer tax." The Chinese association announced that it was closely watching any attempt to find a loophole.