The Chinese Super League is scheduled to get underway on 11 March but a series of unforeseen set-backs have disrupted planning for a competition that is eager to lift itself to a new level.

The CSL has been one of the most popular sports tournaments in China since the inception of professional football in the country 12 years ago. It grew out of the former Jia A-League and took its present name just two years ago. The Chinese football community is keen to see this year's campaign bring success - especially after the recent knock suffered by the national team in failing to qualify for the 2006 FIFA World Cup™ Germany.

Yet the build up to the 2006 season has been plagued with problems. The Chinese Football Association is still desperately struggling to find a sponsor and as if that isn't a big enough headache, the fixture list for the rest of the year may need altering.

The withdrawal of Sichuan Guancheng from the list of clubs in January has complicated the calendar for the rest of the season. Their departure means that there are now an odd number of teams competing for the title. In the 15-team league, one team must sit out one game in each of the 28 fixtures.

But despite the financial and logistical difficulties, hopes for a bright season are running high. There is a feeling of optimism and organizers are confident that attendance figures will be good throughout the year. The fact that English coach Bobby Houghton turned down an offer to lead the Uzbekistan national team in favour of guiding CSL contenders Shenyang Ginde perhaps best illustrates the current wave of excitement for the Chinese game.

Houghton, who led Swedish side Malmo to the UEFA European Club Champions Cup final in 1979, explained, "I have always strongly believed in the huge potential of Chinese football. You can see that during the past years, it has developed at an astonishing rate. I have witnessed enormous changes and if that continues and people work hard then I am sure that they can go far." 

Dalian get on the defensive
For reigning champions Dalian Shide, the future looks particularly rosy. They begin their defence of the league crown by hosting Liaoning in the second fixture on 18 March after receiving a bye in the opening game of the season.

Dalian are the undisputed giants in the Chinese league and unsurprisingly will be the team to stop again this term. Based in the City of Dalian, or "China's footballing capital" as the local media call it, they have confirmed their status as a force to be reckoned with by scooping the title on eight occasions during the CSL's 12-year history. Former Red Star Belgrade coach Vladimir Petrovic Pizon has assembled a plethora of young stars that will be the team to beat this time around.

Only three teams have managed to knock Dalian off their perch since 1994. Shanghai Shenhua won the title in 1995 and then again in 2003, Shandong Luneng secured a sweep of the league and FA Cup double in 1999 and Shenzhen Jianlibao, formerly known as Shenzhen Kingway, were surprise winners under current China coach Zhu Guanghu in 2004.

But with Shenzhen suffering a dip in form as a result of a recent takeover, it appears that Shandong Luneng and Shanghai Shenhua will be Dalian's main challengers.

Shandong's Serbian coach Ljubisa Tumbakovic will be looking for maximum points when he side takes on newly-promoted Xiamen Lanshi on the opening day.

Shandong showed their prowess by brushing Japanese giants Yokohama F Marinos aside to reach the knockout stage of 2005 AFC Championship League, only to be eliminated by eventual champions Al Ittihad. With national team playmaker Zheng Zhi orchestrating play and striker Li Jinyu surging upfront, Shandong's chances of mounting a serious challenge for the title are high.

Two-time league champions Shanghai Shenhua play host to another CSL newcomer Changwan Yatai. Bouyed by sound financial backing, Shenhua have set the league title as their target for the season. Coach Wu Jingui has strengthened the defence with a string of new signings including China captain Li Weifeng and goalkeeper Liu Yunfei to name but two.  

Surprise packages
Last season, the newly promoted Wuhan Huanghelou emerged as the league's dark horses finishing in fifth place on 42 points. Figures show that they cannot be underestimated having clicked up seven consecutive victories under coach Pei Encai during the start of the previous campaign.

Pei's tactical eye has not gone unnoticed and he was appointed head coach of the national women's team last season. But after a short, disappointing stint with the Steel Roses, he returned to his former club.

Houghton's Shenyang Ginde will also be a team to watch. The coach is highly-rated for his immense knowledge of the Chinese game and the experience he has gleaned at three different clubs since quitting the national team post in 1999.

But Houghton prefers to play down any premature talk of titles. "Shenyang Ginde are a very young team - most of the players were born just before 1985 and are now in their early 20s," he said.  "We have a lot of work to do before the new season begins. I hope I can mould these promising young men into really good players. Ideally, I want to get as many of them as possible into the national team."