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CSL Season Previews: Dalian Aerbin

The manager:Aerbin go into the 2014 season with Ma Lin at the helm. The former Liaoning FC manager took over at the Jinzhou stadium after Simo Krunic’s reign in Dalian came to an end after just six months at the club. Ma led Dalian’s local rivals Liaoning Whowin from 2008-2013, having also coached there between 2000 and 2004. Ma was also a stalwart for the side which have now moved to Panjin during his playing career, featuring for the side between 1982 and 1994. Excluding the ignominious reign of Xu Hong at the start of the 2013 season, Ma is following in the wake of three foreign managers, so all eyes will be on the former Liaoning man to see how he handles the pressure.

The history:Dalian Aerbin was founded just under five years ago by Zhao Mingyang, the brash chairman of the Aerbin Group. It is one of a trio of major business groups in Dalian, the other two being Wang Jianlin’s Wanda Group and Shide Group, formerly headed by Bo Xilai’s associate Xu Ming. After Aerbin came into being on July 2009, the club entered China League Two in time for the 2010 season. Zhao hired Dalian legend Li Ming as the team’s general manager and also shelled out for several established China Super League players. With an undeniable competitive advantage, Aerbin won China League Two at the first time of asking, and repeated the feat in the 2011 season under the tutelage of Bulgarian coach Aleksandr Stankov after their promotion to China League Two.

Despite dominating on the lower rungs of China’s football ladder, Aerbin has had a tougher go of it in the CSL. Stankovic made way for the arrival of veteran Korean coach Chang Woe-Ryong. Despite the club’s playing ranks receiving a boost from the signing of former Barcelona man Fabio Rochemback, Aerbin suffered a poor start to life in the CSL. Languishing near the bottom of the table just a month into the season, Chang was replaced by Serbian manager Aleksandar Stanojevic. Several months after Stanojevic’s arrival, Aerbin also brought in both Seydou Keita and Peter Utaka, the former on a reported $14 million per year deal. Following a strong end to the season, the club finished the season in fifth place, a respectable result for a first-year team.

The foundations were laid for Aerbin to improve on their results in the 2013 season, but events late in the 2012 season destabilised the club. In November, Zhao Mingyang announced that he had acquired Dalian Shide, after the once-proud club had become debt-ridden after former owner Xu Ming was questioned and eventually arrested due to his links with Bo Xilai. Zhao announced that he would try to retain as many Shide players as possible, with players such as Li Xuepeng moving into the Aerbin side. The situation was worsened by the departure of Stanojevic for Beijing Guo’an. The new year didn’t bring any respite, with new manager Xu Hong banned from football for five years for his part in a 2003 match-fixing scandal. Li Ming stepped as caretaker manager until Bosnian coach Simo Krunic was eventually hired in June. But Krunic himself left after the conclusion of the 2013 season. It is a small miracle that Aerbin managed to repeat their feat of the year before in finishing 5th.

The team: Arguably one of the few CSL teams that is better known for its Chinese players than its foreigners, Aerbin boast a clutch of top Chinese players, including Yu Dabao, rated by many as the country’s best forward. Further back, the team has a well-endowed midfield – hometown boy Yu Hanchao and former Shenhua player Chen Tao have featured regularly in the national team in recent years. At the back Li Xuepeng has broken into the national side, and he’s yet another local lad. It’s not a surprise that Aerbin should have such an abundance of Chinese talent, the northeast region, and “football city” Dalian in particular have produced disproportionate number of players not only playing in the Chinese national team, but at CSL clubs in general.

The stadium:Aerbin play their football at the 30,775 seater Jinzhou Stadium, having moved here in 2011. The stadium is located 30 kilometres north of central Dalian.

The foreigners: Faced with the departure of all of last year’s foreign imports, including Guillaume Hoarau, Seydou Keita, Fabio Rochemback and Nabil Baha, the Aerbin management faced the unenviable task of stocking an empty cupboard. Li Ming has stepped up to the plate over the off-season and amassed a solid corps of imports. Brazilian striker Bruno Meneghel arrived from the relegated Qingdao Jonoon, where he scored a respectable 19 goals in 40 games in 18 months in Shandong province. Li also secured the signature of Iraqi legend Nashat Akram. Akram was signed in 2008 by Manchester City during Sven Goran Eriksson’s tenure at the club, but failed to actually join City after failing to win a work permit. Aside from ten games for Dutch side FC Twente between 2009 and 2010, Akram has bounced around teams in Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Iraq for the duration of his career prior to coming to China.

While Meneghel and Akram are not particularly noteworthy signings, Li Ming pulled off a coup in signing 30-year-old Croatian striker Leon Benko, who was top scorer in the Croatian League for HNK Rijeka last term and was also leading the scoring race in his home country prior to his transfer to Aerbin.

Similarly, the signing of 25-year-old Swedish international centre-back Niklas Backstrom is also a real success for the Dalian side. Swedish football expert Richard Lindgren Eklow commented that the departure of Backstrom is a “big loss” for AIK in their bid to supplant local rivals Djurgarden. Eklow also noted that Backstrom was lured to Dalian by the offer of a ten-fold increase in his wages.

This season’s crop of foreigners may not have quite the star power of their predecessors, but they augment a solid foundation of local talent. The axis of Akram-Yu-Benko could well prove key to Dalian’s results for the forthcoming season.

The star: Yu Dabao. The subject of a proposed national-record 50 million RMB move to Guangzhou Evergrande over the winter, Yu Dabao signed a 4-year contract extension in January to keep him in Dalian. Yu only managed 9 goals in 33 appearances in all competitions last season, so he will be looking to improve on those totals going into the new season.

The youngster: Following Zhao Mingyang’s acquisition of Dalian Shide at the end of the 2012 season, Aerbin have gained an abundance of young players. The most likely youngsters to make a big contribution in the upcoming season are goalkeeper Lu Weiguo, who made 7 appearances last year, or former Shide attacker Zhao Xuebin, who won reasonable playing time prior to the demise of Shide but struggled for minutes in his third CSL season. Other candidates to come to the fore include Cui Ming’an, Jin Qiang, Ji Zhengyu, Shan Pengfei and Sun Guowen.

The X factor: Stability: With four managers in the last two seasons, a de facto merger with Dalian Shide and a revolving door of import players, Aerbin has endured a turbulent introduction to life in the China Super League. If the vastly-experienced Ma Lin can bring steadiness to the squad and if Yu Dabao can link up well with his team’s new players, Aerbin could be set to challenge for the Asian Champions League spots. If not, it could be a long season for the Dalian side.

The prediction: 5th – even if Aerbin work it out, they are not in a position to challenge the likes of the Guangzhou teams, Shandong or Beijing.

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