Source: China State Council Information Office
The 2020 Chinese Super League will resume on Friday as the campaign moves into its Championship and Relegation Stages in the centralised venues of Suzhou and Dalian.
In a change from the regular season as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, the CSL was split into two groups of eight with the teams playing each other twice. The top four earned a place in the Championship Stage while those in the bottom half were condemned to the Relegation Stage, both of which will played out from a two-legged quarter-final stage onwards.
Following the completion of the league phase, the likes of defending champions Guangzhou Evergrande, 2018 winners Shanghai SIPG and capital city giants Beijing FC are all gunning for the title, while Dalian Pro, Guangzhou R&F and Wuhan Zall are among the teams who will be desperate to avoid dropping into the second tier.
The Shanghai derby
Arguably the standout tie of the Championship Stage quarter-finals pits together Shanghai sides SIPG and Shenhua – the near neighbours whose form in recent seasons could barely have been any more contrasting. The red half of the city, in terms of league position at least, has outperformed the blue half by some distance.
In the past five years SIPG have not finished outside the top three of the CSL, winning their sole top-flight title in 2018 and twice finishing as runners-up as they developed into perennial champions Guangzhou Evergrande’s biggest challengers. Over the same period, Shenhua’s best finish was fourth, in 2016, while their last three campaigns saw them finish 11th, seventh and 13th.
True to form this season, SIPG breezed into the Championship Stage by topping Group B while Shenhua only just made it after winning their final two Group A fixtures to finish fourth.
But there is an interesting subplot ahead of Sunday’s first leg in that, while consistently inconsistent in the league, Shenhua have become cup specialists in recent years. Over the past five campaigns, they have won the FA Cup twice, appeared in the final on three occasions and only once exited before the semi-final. In two of those five competitions it was they who eliminated their city rivals.
Going into the Championship Stage it could be argued that this season offers the perfect platform for a team that excels in cup competitions and, after winning the 2017 and 2019 FA Cups, Shenhua have lost just one knockout round tie since 2016.
The last time the two sides met in a winner-takes-all scenario was the 2017 FA Cup final with Shenhua being crowned champions on away goals and, while SIPG will likely start as favourites to advance in 2020, history shows that their neighbours should not be underestimated.
Pressure on Benitez and Dalian
While it would be a push to claim big things were expected of Dalian Pro ahead of the 2020 campaign, it would also be fair to point out that with perhaps the most reputable manager in the Chinese Super League in Rafa Benitez and a fair share of foreign flair – most notably Slovakian Marek Hamsik – a lot more could have been expected.
As it turned out, despite playing their Group A matches at home in Dalian, the northeastern side took eight games to record their first win and won just twice in their 14 matches. That left them second from bottom in the standings and meant they dropped into the Relegation Stage.
Venezuelan striker Salomon Rondon has, despite his team’s poor form, been among the goals, scoring nine times to date and remaining in the race for the Golden Boot award while former Napoli midfielder Hamsik has played in every game. But they have been unable to impact results.
More worryingly, meanwhile, is that they go into the Relegation Stage on the back of losing their last four Group A games and having gone six matches without a win. The last time anyone other than former Newcastle United striker Rondon got on the scoresheet was seven games ago – back in early September – against bottom side Henan Jianye.
Over the years Benitez has forged a reputation of master tactician, a man fixated on attention to detail down to the finest margin. It has brought the Spaniard notable success with, in particular, Valencia, Liverpool and Napoli. His latest team now need him to work his magic in China.
Dalian go up against Shijiazhuang Ever Bright in their Relegation Stage quarter-final with the pressure on. Win and they will be safe from the dreaded drop, lose and they will enter a last four that no one wants to be part of with the prospect of going down a division even greater.
Hebei and Chongqing chasing new ground
It’s widely accepted that the best team wins the league and, while form doesn’t necessarily go out the window in cup competitions, there is a much greater chance of sides upsetting the odds in a knockout round format – as pointed out previously in the case of Shanghai Shenhua.
The Championship Stage will also offer hope to the likes of Hebei CFFC and Chongqing Lifan, the only two teams of the eight who have yet to appear in the AFC Champions League. Given the uniqueness of the season, however, they find themselves just two rounds away from a place in the 2021 Continental competition.
After finishing fourth in Group B, Hebei’s quarter-final task could not be any tougher as they will have to overcome Guangzhou Evergrande for a place in the last four. In recent years they have splashed the cash, acquiring players of the calibre of Argentine duo Javier Mascherano and Ezequiel Lavezzi, but that spending appears to have now been curbed.
Among their star players this season is on-loan Guangzhou star Ricardo Goulart, although the Brazilian-born attacking midfielder will have to sit out the clash against his parent club. They go into the match as underdogs but likely without any pressure.
Chongqing, meanwhile, finished level on points with Hebei but above them due to a better head-to-head record which ultimately meant they were paired against Jiangsu FC rather than the defending champions. On paper the sides seem much more closely matched, with Jiangsu collecting just two more points than Chongqing during the league period.
The bigger names of Jiangsu and, particularly, Guangzhou are sure to start the last-eight fixtures as favourites but it’s hard to envisage that Chongqing and Hebei will have a better chance of reaching the AFC Champions League in the near future.