All eyes are on Marcello Lippi's Guangzhou Evergrande today when the two-time Chinese Super League champions begin their title-defense with a home game against last season's strugglers Shanghai Shenxin. Having edged the same opponents 2-1 in last season’s opener, the Italian manager warned his side against any complacency.
"While many consider Shenxin as minnows, I think they have their own strengths," the 64-year-old FIFA World Cup™-winning coach said of the visitors, who finished second from bottom and were lucky to maintain their place in the top flight after eight-time winners Dalian Shide were disbanded. "They come here with a series of good friendly results during pre-season training in Turkey so we must respect them."
Evergrande won their first league title unchallenged upon their promotion two years ago and they successfully retained their laurels under Lippi. For those following the Chinese game, the question now is whether they can grab their third consecutive crown, and the second under Lippi.
"As defending champions we are capable of retaining the title," Lippi continued. “But our rivals this year have become stronger. Hard, close battles are expected, and it is largely down to the teams' performance on the pitch as to which side can have the final say this time around."
Aside from their eye-catching imports such as 2011 top-scorer Muriqui, Dario Conca and former Dortmund star Lucas Barrios, Lippi's side boast a series of Chinese internationals spearheaded by captain Zheng Zhi. But they don't seem to be in top form heading into the opener, having lost 2-1 to last year's runners-up Jiangsu Sainty in the recent Super Cup final.
Jiangsu, under Serbian Dragan Okuka, proved the only challengers for Evergrande throughout last season, as Lippi's charges eventually secured the title in the penultimate round. With injured striking-ace Cristian Danalache ruled out, Albanian Hamdi Salihi has been signed to fill the void left by last season's top-scorer, leaving Okuka confident of opening brightly against newly-promoted Wuhan Zall.
"We have yet to fix our goals for the season," he told FIFA.com recently. “But we'll continue our forward play, focusing on attacking and playing an open game regardless of the opponents."
Also on the title-contenders list are last year's third-place finishers Beijing Guoan and fourth-placed Guizhou Renhe. With Frederic Kanoute heading the attacking line, the capital side can count on the tactical know-how of Aleksandar Stanojevic, who took newly-promoted Dalian Aerbin to a surprise fifth place. Guizhou will, for their part, look to the form of midfielder Zvjezdan Misimovic.
Despite a miserable twelfth-placed finish last year, four-time champions Shandong Luneng welcome Aerbin aiming to restore their place among the elite. While Lebanon captain Roda Antar drives the team from midfield, shouldering the goal-scoring tasks is newly-signed Chinese international Yang Xu from Liaoning Whowin.
The visitors, though, have proved more than capable of causing an upset, armed, as they are, with two former Barcelona men in Fabio Rochemback and Seydou Keita, as well as free-scoring Peter Utaka. Adding to this already-formidable line-up are Chinese internationals Chen Tao and Yu Hanchao, who will enhance the team's potency upfront.
Shanghai Shenhua stole the show in the opening stages of the previous season with their glamorous imported stars in Didier Drogba and Nicolas Anelka, although they could only claim a lacklustre ninth place. This season sees the traditional giants beginning in the shadow of their match-fixing scandals alongside opening rivals Tianjin Teda, with both sides subsequently starting the campaign with a six-point handicap.
Shanghai SIPG have an uphill battle in their Super League debut with an away game against Beijing. Earning promotion courtesy of their title-winning campaign in Chinese League One, the novices travel to the capital seeking to cause a surprise. And pulling the tactical strings is none other than former Beijing star Gao Hongbo, who took Guizhou to the FA Cup final only to be edged out by Evergrande last year.
Fellow debutants Wuhan Zall challenge Jiangsu aiming to steal a point, while last year's strugglers Hangzhou Greentown play hosts to Changchun Yatai. Qingdao Jonoon, under former Korea Republic defender Chang Woeryong, do battle with hosts Guizhou targeting an opening victory and elsewhere, Guangzhou R&F travel to Liaoning hoping to continue their surprise run of last season.