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Pub Talk: Raising the curtain on CSL 2013

It’s about that time again! The CSL is about to kick off just hours from now, and the boys give it a good old preview before B dashes out the door to make his way to Gongti. Excitement is in the air as the pair ponder how things will pan out this year. Who will win? Who will lose? Who will hog the media limelight? There’s simply so much to talk about. The “minus six-pointer” is mulled over – a unique start to a unique league. New signings are pondered, and the sticky question of who will go down is addressed – it’s not a fun topic for Mr Ultra. Elsewhere, dark horses and reined in, and the Elephant has gone. So pull up a stool and join the bar discussion for the opening week of the CSL. Hold on to your hats, it’s sure to be another eventful ride…

S: So, here we are, the start of the season is almost upon us – the long, boring winter is over. What say you?

B: I almost wish it wasn’t here and I could keep this sense of hope and optimism that I have now, keeping off the 6 month roller coaster that is going to start tomorrow night.

S: Yeah I know what you mean. Or, well I would if I was a fan of a team which isn’t going to be a relegation struggler.

B: Yeah, that’s certainly going to make it all the more crazy a ride.

S: Yeah, if you thought it was crazy last year, you haven’t seen anything yet!

B: And right from the start too, with you lot facing off against the other team that received a six point deduction due to match fixing on the opening weekend.

S: Yes, whoever arranged the fixtures has a wicked sense of irony. If ever there was a game a team didn’t want to lose, this is it.

B: What’s the mood around Hongkou right now? Do you all believe the chances are good Shenhua will make it out alive?

S: I think most people know Shenhua are in for a very tough year, but I haven’t heard anyone in blue predict relegation. Perhaps they are just afraid to admit it.

B: I would think that might be the case. With the loss of two major players and not much doing in the offseason, who will be the difference maker in Shanghai this year?

S: Gio Moreno has been named captain. I don’t think that’s the right move, he’s a selfish player who doesn’t strive to push the rest of the team forward. But Shenhua are always chosing wrong captains. Nevertheless, Moreno will be key. As will our new strikers, Dady and Firas. Right now, I have no idea how effective they will be.

B: Who will end up -9 points back after round 1?

S: I think the opening game as 0-0 written all over it. So there will be two teams on -5 I think in the second round….

B: Let’s step back for a minute, we’ve talked a little bit about the points deductions, what are your thoughts on the new season as we take a look across the league?

S: I think we can look forward to some serious football getting played now that all the hoo-hah about match fixing is over and the guilty parties punished accordingly. There’s a lot to look forward to this year, there might not be Drogba and Anelka but there are still some big names here, plus some younger Chinese players breaking through are showing promise. It’s slow progress, but I do think 2013 will be a great year. My worry is that Evergrande run away with it. I don’t think it will happen quite like that, but if any team does, it will be them.

B: I simply can’t see Evergrande running away with it, there’s far too much competition out there. In fact, I wouldn’t be at all surprised if they don’t win it.

S: I hope you are right, but I thin they will win it again.

B: I think if you see Lippi playing around with the lineup, using Qin Sheng as a sweeper, it just seems he’s having a laugh down there. To keep the consistency and discipline to do it again, I just don’t see it. Well, what other thoughts do you have on the league?

S: I think this season is one of the hardest to predict. Shandong have made some great purchases and they are a traditionally powerful CSL team. Aerbin are going to be really strong, but how much? Guizhou also are looking good, and I still think Sainty will be in there.

B: Sainty way over-achieved last year, I can’t see them keeping that organization this season, but Nanjing has become a tough place to go. I also think Danalache being out at the start is going to cost them. I have a lot of confidence in Aerbin and Shandong, they both made major moves and have turned themselves into solid sides. Guizhou, not so much. I think Shandong is still too reliant on young players and might not have the consistency this year, but they’ll be in it. The race is between Evergrande and Aerbin, though.

S: Yeah I think we can agree these two will be leading the race for sure. What do you think about Guoan’s chances then?

B: They might be able to sneak into third, but I can’t see them competing for the title. They still have all their domestic transfer moves left, so maybe they can do something in the summer, but I’m not holding my breath. Getting through the CFA Cup might be the only hope of returning to the ACL.

S: What’s behind Guoan’s lack of transfer action? it seems very strange to me.

B: The market. They (rightly) believe it’s a bubble and don’t want to overpay, the downside is that they’ve screwed their own chances of being able to seriously compete.

S: One of the best supported clubs in the league and they aren’t willing to splash the cash. That’s a real lack of ambition.

B: We’ve talked about it before, it’s a huge mistake, but when teams are paying RMB8 million for China Leaguers and RMB4 million for the likes of Qiu Tianyi, I think we’d both say the market is completely out of whack.

S: Definitely. But the bubble doesn’t look like it’s going to pop soon. So what do you think the headlines are going to be for the CSL on Monday morning?

B: Well, right now I think there are three matches to focus on, the big one is between the two big spenders that we talked about, Shandong hosting Aerbin on Saturday night. Then of course is the -6 pointer in Shanghai. I also think the clash between Jiangsu and Wuhan will be interesting, very curious to see what we can learn about both of those sides.

S: Yes, there is also the opening ceremony tonight. Do you ever watch those?

B: I think it’s something that the league probably should do away with. It’s one thing two years ago when Guangzhou put a lot of money into it and put on a pretty impressive display, but even then it was, shall we say, lacking. This time around, nobody wanted to host it and the league cajoled Guangzhou into doing it again.

S: Yes, and who can forget the very bizarre scenes in Guangzhou when they won the league, and some singer was paraded around the stadium.

B: It’s a nice idea, but I don’t think it adds anything and it seems more often than not the team who is hosting doesn’t put much effort into it.

S: Yeah I think they are silly. I’ve never been interested in shows and gimmicks at matches, I turn up to watch a game of football, not people farting about and singing and dancing .

B: Guoan usually has a small one of their own with dancers and kids with footballs. I guess it’s a good experience for the kids, plus their parents are happy to see them out there.

S: Yeah fair enough. So what about the rest of the league? Who is going down?

B: Shenhua.

S: I’d love to argue vehemently against that answer, but I can’t. I think Shenhua will stay up, but it will be close.

B: I just don’t think they’ve done enough to get better and they’d be down at the bottom even before having to make up 6 points. Outside of Shanghai, I think it’s gotta be Qingdao. Many may choose Shenxin, but I think last year was an anomaly, they are a side that plays very tough defense and can beat anybody.

S: Of those three sides you mention, I think its likely the identities of the relegated sides will come from them. I think Shenxin are a better side than they are given credit for, and the have also strengthened themselves well with some solid signings. They are fortunate to be in the CSL this year though, thanks to Shide’s disappearance.

B: Right, I think it’s interesting that attitudes are Tianjin is going to be able to overcome the penalty, despite losing Chen Tao in the offseason.

S: Yes it is curious, they also have lost Ars who spanked in all those goals last season. It all depends on their new foreigners.

B: Right, that was another big loss, obviously. As, you say, we’ll have to see how quickly their new foreigners can adjust.

S: And that is so often the case. Either way, Tianjin’s name won’t be featuring in the top half of the table this year I don’t think.

B: Definitely not, they’ll stay up, but they won’t be climbing that far out of the basement. I also think Liaoning will struggle mightily, but I’m confident, perhaps too much so, that Ma Lin can keep them above water. Losing a pair that have accounted for 55 goals over the past three seasons is enough to sink just about any team. They got hit hard during the offseason.

S: Yeah. Yu Hanchao is one of the best players on the national team at the moment, Yang Xu is impressive also. Chamanga is a quality player though, they did well to pick him up from Shide.

B: Yes, I think their foreign pickups are unusually quality. I think through them, Liaoning can ultimately avoid the drop.

S: So what are your hopes this year? Anything you would like to see more of? Or less of?

B: I would like to see Chinese players come to the fore more, perhaps have more than just one near the top of the scoring charts. I’d also like to see better refereeing and less of the bullshit tactics we see too often.

S: Yeah. I really hope they will clampdown on all the diving and the infuriating amount of time-wasting that comes at the end of games. It drives me berserk.

B: Don’t we all.

S: Well, even with all the crappy stuff surrounding Shenhua, I can’t wait for the season to get going again. Just getting to the game and being in the stadium and all the fooling and joking around is something which excites me.

B: Yeah, exactly. I can’t wait to be back in the stadium, see friends who I haven’t seen in a few months, and get this show started.

S: I saw some activity on the interwebs, seems Gongti is buzzing already, what’s the weather like up there?

B: It’s almost at 20, unseasonably warm in the north these days.

S: That’s hot indeed for early March. My memories of early season games are ones involving wearing a lot of clothing.

B: Yes, lovely to have this bit of early spring, even if the air quality is shit.

S: *Cough* yep. I looked at the kick off times, 19.25 – that’s a rather odd time is it not?

B: 19:35. For whatever reason, this season that seems to be a common trend, of the eight matches this weekend, six start thirty-five minutes after the hour.

S: It says 19.25 elsewhere, they must be wrong. So, anything else to say?

B: Very weird…I think that’s about it, to a new season, let’s hope it will be one of the best yet.

S: Yeah it’s going to be interesting to see how it pans out, it’s going to be tight at the top and bottom I think. This time next week we will have a lot more to talk about.

B: We certainly will, that’s the fun of a new season, especially one where it’s so hard to know how good the newcomers will be.

S: Yeah, there are so many unknowns. The irony is last season seemed easier to predict, Anelka coming to Shenhua made everyone think they would at least be an ACL contender, but look what happened there. Plus on the face of it, Aerbin and Fuli looked stronger as promoted teams, compared to this year’s new guys Wuhan and Shanghai East Asia.

B: I don’t know, I think not much has changed. I think if you go back to last season, I think less was probably expected of the two newly promoted sides, though as has always been the case in the CSL, at least one tends to surprise you. I think last season it was far more clear that Evergrande were the best side, which made things easier. There has been so much movement this year that it will take some time to let the dust settle.

S: Yeah I think so – there is a lot of dust, as it were. I think whatever happens it will most likely be tight.

B: I honestly believe we’ll be looking at one of the tightest races in years.

S: Yeah – that’s going to be exciting for all. So, time to drink up?

B: Yeah, I gotta get to the ground, cheers!

S: Cheers to a hopefully great season!

A leading international commentator on Chinese football frequently quoted by the world's top media. Offers piercing and resolutely honest insights into the bustling crossroads where football, society, economics and politics meet in contemporary China. Based in Shanghai since 2005, observer of the Chinese game since 2000.

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