Hong Kong. Yannick Carrasco and Nicolas Gaitan reignited interest by signing for Dalian Yifang just before the transfer window closed but it will be new rules rather than new arrivals that shape the outcome of this year’s Chinese Super League.
Newly-promoted Dalian claimed the headlines with the purchase of the Atletico Madrid duo along with Jose Fonte from West Ham United, splashing the cash in a manner not seen since Shanghai SIPG’s capture of Oscar with an Asian record fee.
Attempts to curb rampant spending since the Brazilian moved from Chelsea at the end of 2016 have largely been successful - a 100 percent levy on transfers over 45 million yuan ($7.1 million) cooling a market that threatened to go into overdrive.
It is another move by the Chinese Football Association (CFA) in December last year, however, that looks likely to prove more influential on the destiny of this year’s league crown.
In an attempt to develop players for the struggling national side, the CFA announced that clubs must start matches with the same number of Chinese players under the age of 23 as they do players from overseas.
While undoubtedly popular with those ambitious for China to pull itself out of the international doldrums, the new rule has added an element of unpredictability to the new season.
“The new policy has made it difficult to make decisions on the line-up,” new Guangzhou Evergrande coach Fabio Cannavaro said after his side’s Chinese Super Cup win over Shanghai Shenhua on Monday (26/02).
“I didn’t decide how to use our under 23 players until the morning of the match.”
Evergrande, winners of the last seven Chinese Super League titles, have prepared better than most for the new rules by signing Deng Hanwen, Yang Liyu and Tang Shi.
The trio, who all represented China at the Asia under-23 championship in Jiangsu in January, have bolstered Cannavaro’s squad as the Italian returns for a second stint at a club that fired him in 2015 after just six months at the helm.
Cannavaro’s chance for redemption at Tianhe Stadium comes after he steered Tianjin Quanjian to third place last season and the former defender takes over a Guangzhou side that will once again be the favorites for the title.
Evergrande claimed last season’s title ahead of SIPG but the club from southern China struggled at times, especially after the sale of influential midfielder Paulinho to Barcelona.
Nemanja Gudelj has come in to replace the Brazilian and the Serbian will link up at the seven-times champions with stalwarts Zheng Zhi and Huang Bowen, both now into their thirties.
SIPG, runners up in both the league and Chinese FA Cup last season, have replaced Andre Villas-Boas with another Portuguese coach in Vitor Pereira and gone for stability over further lavish spending.
A third Portuguese, Paulo Sousa, has replaced Cannavaro at Tianjin, while a hundred kilometers up the Beijing road Manuel Pellegrini has been quietly preparing Hebei China Fortune for their run at the title.
The Chilean added Javier Mascherano to the squad that finished fourth last year and, with no Asian Champions League campaign to distract them, Hebei could pose the most serious threat to Guangzhou’s stranglehold on the title.