The 16-team Chinese Super League kicks off the new season this weekend, in this, its 16th year. The opening encounter will take place at Zhengzhou on Saturday, where hosts Henan Jianye and Guangzhou lock horns, with the seven other opening fixtures to be played 24 hours later.
Defending champions and three-time winners Shandong Luneng open their title defense with a home game against Shenzhen, a side who won the league in 2004 but finished only fifth from bottom last season. Despite the loss of midfield dynamo Zhou Haibin to PSV Eindhoven, Shandong remain a formidable side in the eyes of opponents and any team writing off the title holders will do so at their peril.
The creative void left by Haibin is expected to be filled by Shandong's recent import Roda Antar, a Lebanon international who spent the past eight seasons with the likes of Hamburg, Freiburg and Cologne. Armed with the notable signing and boosted by their 5-0 triumph over Indonesian side Sriwijaya in their latest AFC Champions League outing, the Jinan-based heavyweights have high hopes of claiming their fourth title.
"Our goal for the year to come is clear," claimed Shandong's Serbian coach Ljubisa Tumbakovic, who has guided the club to two league titles during his five years in charge. "We will try to maintain our domestic dominance and also strive to achieve a satisfying result at the continental stage."
The challenging pack
Also joining Shandong on the favourites list are Shanghai Shenhua, Beijing Guoan and Tianjin Teda, traditional powerhouses who are more than capable of mounting a serious challenge for the title. Furthermore, like Shandong, the trio, who are all featuring in this year's AFC Champions League due to their top-four finish in the league last year, have set their sights on both domestic and Asian success.
Despite losing 2-0 to Japanese champions Kashima Antlers in their recent AFC Champions League fixture, last season's runners-up Shanghai Shenhua are likely to make light work of the newly promoted side Jiangsu Shuntian in their opener. Boasting the attacking talents of Chen Tao and Mao Jianqing, plus Australian national team player Mark Milligan, Shanghai have the potential to achieve double success.
Beijing Guoan will be hoping to continue the form which saw them comfortably dispatch Australia's Newcastle Jets 2-0 before drawing with Japanese hosts Nagoya Grampus in the recent AFC Champions League fixtures, in a bid to claim their first league title. Under South Korean coach Lee Jang-Soo and armed with a good batch of signings, the capital-based club are keen to get rid of the old tag as the CSL's perennial underachievers.
Last year's fourth-placed Tianjin Teda cross swords with eight-time Chinese champions Dalian Shide in the opener. Tianjin have proved to be a force to be reckoned with on the national stage over recent years while conversely Dalian are a shadow of their former dominant selves.
Lesser lights hopeful
While the giant quartet prepares to live up to expectations, they will have to keep vigilant of Shanxi Baorong and Changchun Yatai, an emerging pair who are both capable of posing a serious threat. Changchun surprised even their own supporters by winning the league in 2007 while Shanxi stole the show when they dominated the CSL standings midway through last season.
And last but not the least, Dalian Shide, despite finishing third from bottom last season, still represent a force that no one dare overlook. Spearheaded by the likes of national striker Zhu Ting and former Manchester United man Dong Fangzhuo, Dalian is capable of breaching any rearguard on their day.