The curtain came down on the 2011 Chinese Super League season on Wednesday, with newly promoted Guangzhou Yiyao winning the title unchallenged. Beijing Guoan and Liaoning Whowin clinched second and third and thus join Guangzhou in representing the country during next year's AFC Champions League.
In fact, with the top two spots already sealed earlier, and Chengdu Blades and Shenzhen Ruby condemned to relegation in the penultimate round, the focus on the concluding matchday switched to the battle for third between Tianjin Teda and Liaoning. The former may have enjoyed the home support, but it was the latter that ran out 3-1 winners to claim the coveted third spot.
The past season saw Guangzhou dominate the 16-strong domestic competition from the outset and they duly made history as the first newly-promoted side to win the C-League title. Even more significant was the style in which they did so, winning with four matches to spare.
Once one of China's traditional powerhouses, Guangzhou were demoted to the first division at the end of the 2009 season. Sponsored by Guangzhou Evergrande, the country's leading real estate company who took over the same year, it took them only one season to earn a return back to the top-flight, after sweeping to the second tier title unchallenged.
Guangzhou stated their intent in the off-season by developing a star-studded squad. Chinese international defender Sun Xiang was an inspiration in the backline, two-time Chinese Player of the Year Zheng Zhi directed traffic in midfield alongside Brazilian Muriqui, while Gao Lin and former Partizan Belgrade striker Cleo formed a formidable attacking-line.
Boasting such an enviable line-up, and guided by South Korean Lee Jang-Soo, Guangzhou stunned eight-time winners Dalian Shide 1-0 in the opener. After drawing against Nanchang Hengyuan and Beijing Guoan in the next two outings, they racked up four wins in a row to replace Hangzhou Greentown as the leaders. And they never looked back thereafter, maintaining pole position throughout and at the midway point of the competition they held a ten-point cushion over second-placed Beijing Guoan.
The team received an able reinforcement in the shape of Argentine midfielder Dario Leonardo Conca in July. The former Vasco da Gama and Fluminense playmaker made an immediate impact upon his arrival by scoring in his Chinese debut as his side crushed Nanchang 5-0, before scoring twice more, and also setting up the other two, in the 4-0 home defeat of Qingdao Jonoon. With Conca's arrival, Guangzhou continued to cruise on the domestic scene, maintaining their unbeaten run with a 2-0 home victory over holders Shandong Luneng with just seven matches remaining.
Enjoying a 15-point lead at the summit, needless to say, they had put the title-race beyond doubt. Despite suffering their first defeat losing 2-1 at Changchun Yatai, they bounced back with a 4-0 demolition of Tianjin Teda, before pulling off a 4-1 triumph in Shaanxi Chanba to seal the title.
Boosted by the unprecedented achievement coach Lee has set his sights beyond on continental success. “Just as club president Xu Jiayin has pointed out, we will switch our focus to the AFC Champions League competition next season and our target is to be the Asian champion," he said. "But this doesn’t mean we will ignore the local competition as we aim to win the domestic and Asian double.”
Liaoning, the only Chinese side to have won an Asian title to date having prevailed in the 1989 Asian Club Championship, will have their own continental ambitions. With free-scoring Yu Hanchao and Yang Xu spearheading the attack, Liaoning are expected to make more of an impact next season.
Elsewhere, despite conceding their title to Guangzhou, Shandong made amends by storming into the final of the FA Cup, which resumed this season after a four-year hiatus. Locking horns with them in the tournament decider on 19 November are Tianjin, with the winners to be guaranteed not only the Cup title, but also China’s remaining berth to next years AFC Champions League.