Bundesliga stars boost China
Having spent nearly a decade plying their trade in the German Bundesliga, Brazilian striker Ailton and Lebanese playmaker Roda Antar have proved their credentials at the highest level in Europe. The former is best remembered as the first foreign import to be crowned German Footballer of the Year back in 2004 during his time at Werder Bremen, while the latter also won recognition for his performances with Hamburg, Freiburg and Cologne.
Given their impressive pedigree, it was no surprise that the duo raised eyebrows by moving to the Chinese Super League, Antar inking a deal with Chinese champions Shandong Luneng in March before Ailton followed suit by joining Chongqing Lifan in July. In the world's most populous nation, this shock has been matched by excitement, with images of these two former Bundesliga stars dominating the sports pages over recent weeks.
Antar's seamless transition
Ailton may have reached greater heights in Germany, but it was Antar - still just 28 - who first caught the eye in China. Despite not hitting top form, and spending a month nursing a niggling injury, the Sierra Leone-born star still managed to net four times to top his club's scoring charts.
He broke his duck in only his second appearance with Shandong on 28 March, nodding home the only goal against Shanxin Zhongxin to seal the defending champions' first victory of the season. The former Freiburg midfielder was then on target again in his club's next game away to Shanghai Shenhua, breaking the deadlock only for the hosts to battle back to claim a 4-1 win.
His third goal came in Shandong's encounter against Henan Jianye, when he sealed a 3-1 win. Upon his recent return from injury, the 28-year-old quickly rediscovered his scoring form by heading home the winning goal in the return match with Shanxin, a result which moves the reigning champions to within a point of pacesetters Beijing Guoan.
Having won the hearts of media and fans alike, Antar revealed his debut season target: help his new club retain their title. "Shandong is a great club and I am happy to play with them," he told FIFA.com in a recent interview. "The team boasts the league's best players and coaching staff, and I am looking to do my best to help them.
"Before moving to China I knew little about the country's football," he continued. "But when I came here I found few differences from Germany in terms of facilities and professionalism."
Antar also warmly welcomed Ailton's arrival, although he insisted that his former Bundesliga adversary should not expect an easy time of it when their sides meet on 11 October. "Ailton is a good striker and we met a couple of times when in Germany," he said. "I hope he can readjust to the new environment quickly but I won't spare my efforts playing against him."
Chongqing's Brazilian saviour
While Antar is confident of propelling Shandong to their fourth league title, Ailton faces a battle at the other end of the table. With only 12 points garnered from 17 matches, Chongqing languish at the bottom of the 16-team division and face a tall order to remain in the top flight.
However, Ailton breathed new hope into the team when he completed an impressive debut two weeks ago, playing the entire 90 minutes and setting up Chongqing's second goal in a shock 3-2 win over leaders Beijing. "I could have done better had it been in 2003," said the 36-year-old, citing the memorable 2003/04 season when he notched up 28 goals to win the Bundesliga with Werder Bremen.
"By defeating Beijing we showed we are capable of competing against the league's best," he concluded. "I believe we can save ourselves from relegation as long as we keep up this momentum."