I’ve always had a soft spot for this northeastern side, a team that is truly the team of the people. My first real Chinese Super League memory was actually a Shenhua-Liaoning match at Hongkou back in the days when Liaoning were loaded with the likes of Li Tie, Li Jinyu, Zhao Junzhe, Zhang Yuning, Zhang Yonghai, and Xu Liang. Thinking about that squad, it’s amazing how they never managed to win a league title. I was one of the ten or so who showed up at Aoti during the few depressing months when Liaoning became Beijing Sanyuan. I’d never support anybody else when they face Guoan, but Liaoning is so easy for a neutral to support. This season, expect a little more coverage of the northeast tigers.
Two Kids and a Veteran
Zhao Junzhe proved that he still had it last season, a solid presence in the midfield and able to cover the entire field, getting involved in the offense and getting back to cover at the other end of the field. Zhao was even involved in the Muriqui incident that almost saw the Brazilian star quit China. He’s a field general for his own squad and also the type of player who can get in the heads of the opposition, a real difference maker in the center of the pitch. That presence is going to be a key to whatever success Liaoning can muster in the upcoming season.
That’s the veteran, the two kids are Yu Hanchao and Yang Xu, who really came of age last season, putting the team on their backs and serving as the main scoring threats. Both were highly prized in the offseason, but both decided it was best to stay at home in Shenyang. The pair have started for the Chinese national team and will be critical to Liaoning’s success this year as the scoring burden will be on them. There are few teams in the league whose success falls pretty much entirely on the performance of three players, but that’s how things are in Liaoning and these three are able to carry the team.
The club has brought in a trio of new foreigners, Serb striker Miloš Trifunović, Argentinian midfielder Pablo Brandan, and Macedonian winger Vlatko Grozdanoski. Trifunovic could have the biggest impact and help lighten the load on Yang and Yu. On paper, he looks like a major upgrade over Otto, who wasn’t helped by a change of scenery and was too slow on the ball. That shouldn’t be the case with Trifunovic, who has put up good numbers with Red Star Belgrade and most recently for Uzbek side Bunyodkor. The three look like an improvement over Liaoning’s former group of foreigners and the team will once again have Kim Yoo-Jin anchoring the defense for them.
While he’s only 49 years old, Ma Lin already has an impressive coaching resume, one that has seen him spend almost his entire coaching career in Liaoning. It was his attitude and ability to unify a team that was lacking star power that brought the side into the top three last season, an extremely impressive finish that won him Coach of the Year awards from the Chinese Super League and this site. He’s going to need to do more with less once again, but the club has brought Wang Liang back to Liaoning and made a few small pickups that should help them fight to get back into the top three. The club’s decision not to take part in the ACL, a controversial one, may turn out to be a blessing in disguise as it means they won’t have to deal with a tough travel schedule and instead focus on the league and CFA Cup.
This team could once again sneak into the top three, but their best bet is a focus on the CFA Cup, which they’ll get a pass straight to the quarterfinals. They have a lot of potential, especially if their young players can continue to grow, but if they want to seriously contend they will probably need to spend some money in the summer transfer window.