Challengers await China's big four

Football fans across China will rejoice over the weekend as the Chinese Super League recommences on Friday after a lengthy off-season. Featuring 16 teams including six former champions, the top-flight competition, which is entering its 18th edition, runs across a period of seven months before coming to a close in early November.

Topping the favourites list are last year's top-four, who enter the opening weekend with the advantage of participating in the opening two rounds of this year's AFC Champions League. Among them are holders Shandong Luneng who open their title-defense against newly-promoted Chengdu Blades, with their Croatian boss Branko Ivankovic hoping for a good start to his second C-League season. Having taken Shandong to their fourth league title in his debut last year, the former Iran manager has set his sights on double success both on the home and Asian front.

"Needless to say we are looking to win the league title," the 56-year-old told "It is going to be a hard season because the opponents have prepared themselves well in the build-up. But we are optimistic of achieving our goal as we have the players capable of the task. We also want to get a good result in the AFC Champions League."

Indeed, the Jinan-based side is among the most creative in the league with Chinese internationals Deng Zhuoxiang and Zhou Haibin bossing the midfield, alongside Lebanon star Roda Antar. Shandong have also swooped on Brazilian Obina, who made his name as a free-scoring striker with Flamengo, further enhancing their attacking potency.

Challengers eye Shandong’s crown
Last year's runners-up Tianjin Teda, under former China coach Arie Haan, are in prolific form going into the opener against Shenzhen Ruby, having recorded impressive victories over Jeju United and Gamba Osaka in the Asian competition. Notable among their new signings are defender Li Weifeng and attacking midfielder Chen Tao, both of whom were instrumental in their recent succesful continental outings.

Two-time winners Shanghai Shenhua, too, are among the serious title-contenders and are expected to open brightly against Qingdao Zhongneng given their formidable line-up. Chinese internationals Yu Tao and Feng Renliang will seek to provide ammunition for Columbian striker Duvier Riascos, who bagged 20 goals last campaign to win both the top-scorer and C-League Player of the Year awards.

A 2-0 AFC Champions League victory over Japanese champions Nagoya Grampus no less, has provided Hangzhou Greentown with self-belief for their C-League campaign which begins with a home fixture against Nanchang Hengyuan. Under home-grown Wu Jingui, an avowed admirer of Jose Mourinho, they finished fourth ahead of 2009 defending champions Beijing Guoan to earn their maiden Asian appearance. Boasting four Chinese internationals and emerging goal-scorer Bali Maimaitiyili, the Hangzhou-based side are expecting to mount a serious challenge for the title.

Leading the threat to the big four will be a duo of former champions, with 2009 winners Beijing Guoan aiming high under Portuguese Jaime Pacheco, while eight-time winners Dalian Shide will put much faith in their Korea Republic trio, spearheaded by Ahn Jung-Hwan. Elsewhere, newly-promoted Guangzhou Evergrande have a number of expensive imports within their squad roster, while neighbouring Shenzhen appointed iconic French coach Philippe Troussier to look after their destiny.

Foreign guns to roar again
With imported forwards dominating the goalscoring chart over recent years, this season's competition to be the league’s top marksman is expected to be among the foreign guns yet again. Leading the list is last year's Golden Boot winner Riascos, but much is expected of Guangzhou's Cleo, with the Brazilian burdened with expectation following his record €3.2 million transfer fee. The 25-year-old was in irresistible form during his two years with FK Partisan and his goals lifted the Belgrade side into the 2010/11 UEFA Champions League.

Arguably the top contender, though, is none other than his striking partner and compatriot Muriqui, who scored 13 times in just 14 appearances last year helping Guangzhou graduate to the top flight as the winners of the first division. Shandong's Obina is also among the favourites while Shenzhen's New Zealand targetman Chris Killen showed his worth in his debut season with 8 goals in 13 appearances.