Marcello Lippi's Guangzhou Evergrande emerged as the first team to defend the Chinese Super League since Dalian Shide in 2002 when curtain came down on the 2012 season on Saturday.
Having sealed the title with a game to spare, the Italian opted to field a second-string line-up in the closing match at Beijing Guoan. The game ended 1-0 in the hosts’ favour as the side from the capital secured their place in the top three and possible qualification for next year's AFC Champions League alongside the champions and runners-up Jiangsu Sainty.
At the opposite of the table, Shanghai Shenxin were condemned to relegation alongside bottom-placed Henan Construction after losing the decider 3-2 at Liaoning Whowin. Replacing the demoted pair next season are Shanghai Tellace and Wuhan Zall, who finished in the top two of the First Division.
The narrow defeat against the capital side did little to disappoint Lippi, who has now switched his focus to the two-legged FA Cup final against Guizhou Renhe on 10 and 18 November.
"It is over five months since I came to China," said the 64-year-old FIFA World Cup™ winning coach, who replaced South Korean Lee Jangsoo in May. "We successfully defended our title, and reached the final of FA Cup. But we were not lucky in the Champions League as we crashed out in the quarter-finals. It would have been ideal had we done better on the Asian scene."
Bumpy road to glory
Boasting a host of Chinese internationals including captain Zheng Zhi and admirable imports in Dario Conca and Muriqui, Guangzhou dominated the previous season throughout to clinch their maiden trophy unchallenged. A series of eye-catching recruitments including Borussia Dortmund striker Lucas Barrios were added to their already enviable line-up this season, with the holders targeting double success on both home and Asian front.
Their ambitions were, however, dealt a blow with a 2-0 loss to newly-promoted Guangzhou R&F in their second outing, a result which left them languishing in tenth. With the team beginning to gel, the defending champions gradually asserted their authority with a seven match unbeaten streak to return to the top four points clear.
They proceeded to maintain their form and build a seven-point advantage at the summit midway through this season. But the second-half of the campaign proved turbulent, with a second defeat to city-rivals R&F plus losses to Guizhou and Qingdo Jonoon seeing them trail behind Jiangsu on goal difference with four matches to play.
With so much at stake, Lippi's side kept their cool to edge Shandong Luneng in a 3-2 goal-thriller to restore their lead, before fighting back to draw 1-1 at Jiangsu. In the penultimate game against struggling Liaoning, Gao Lin struck the only goal in the last minute to seal the match and title.
If Guangzhou came from nowhere to shock the giants and win the league as a newly-promoted side last year, this season saw the emergence of a series of promising teams who took the league by storm. Indeed, these up-and-comers were indebted to their star imports as they set the domestic stage ablaze.
Notably, Jiangsu, under Serbian Dragan Okuka, emerged the season's biggest surprise packages by narrowly finishing behind Guangzhou, thanks to the goal-scoring form of the Romanian forward Cristian Danalache who finished the season as top-scorer with 23 goals.
Even more impressive were the newly-promoted pair of Dalian Aerbin and R&F, both of whom mounted serious challenges. The former, armed with former Barcelona midfielder Seydou Keita and Nigerian striker Peter Utaka, surpassed the likes of Changchun Yatai and Tianjin Teda to fifth place in their debut Super League season. R&F, meanwhile, finished in seventh, inspired by the form of Brazilian trio: Rafael Coelho, Davi and Jumar as well as former Everton marksman Yakubu Aiyegbeni.
Conversely, it proved to be a season to forget for several traditional powers. Shanghai, despite securing the services of Nicolas Anelka and Didier Drogba, largely underperformed with a humble ninth-place finish. Four-time winners Shandong Luneng, for their part, struggled to rediscover their old selves throughout as they finished tenth, their second worst placing in the club’s history.
China’s most successful club, Dalian Shide, continued their slump over recent years by only narrowly avoiding relegation with a single-goal defeat of Henan in their penultimate match. With the traditional order completely overthrown, the 18-year old C-League is embracing a new dawn.