With attention firmly fixed on the Super League, League One kicked off last weekend. With sixteen teams fighting out in China’s second tier, we tell you what you need to know about each side and how their prospects look for the coming season. Part one looks at the top eight sides in contention for promotion to a spot in 2016’s Super League. With some Super League old boys competing with some ambitious up and coming clubs, the 2015 season promises plenty of twists and turns. That being said, predictions are purely for guidance purposes so please don’t part with your money.
Dalian Aerbin – 2014: CSL 15th – Predicted 2015 finish: 1st
History: Having entered the Chinese football pyramid in 2010 under the shadow of China’s most successful ever team in terms of titles, Dalian Shide, two straight promotions allowed Aerbin to make it to the Super League in time for the 2012 season. The team had an immediate impact in the top flight and finished fifth in their maiden season before merging with their cash strapped city rivals in time for the following year.
Another fifth placed finish followed, but things turned sour last year as the team began suffering severe financial difficulties and got sucked closer and closer towards the relegation zone as the season progressed. A 1-1 draw with Shanghai Shenxin on the final day of the season wasn’t enough to keep them up and the great footballing city of Dalian finds itself without a top flight team for the first time since the league went fully professional in 1994.
Changes: Japanese Head Coach Yasuharu Kurata is gone after less than a year at the helm and has been replaced by Swede Mikael Stahre who took IFK Goteborg to second in last year’s Alsvenskan. On the playing front, several of last season’s regulars have gone. Yu Dabao and Zhang Jiaqi were the highest profile departures, but Jin Pengxiang, Jin Yanyang, Lv Peng, Zhao Honglve, Yang Boyu and Esteban Solari have all moved on.
Notable new arrivals include tall, journeyman, Swedish striker Mathias Ranegie who comes in on loan from Watford of the English Championship and veteran centre back Wang Wanpeng who had spent the entirity of his career at Changchun Yatai. Finally,the versatile and temperamental Zhu Ting returns to his hometown after performing well for Wuhan Zall last season.
Players To Watch: Keeping hold of Brazilian forward Bruno Meneghel was important for Dalian as, despite being relegated for the second straight season, he scored 12 of their 32 goals last year having also found the net regularly with previous side Qingdao Jonoon. Elsewhere, attacking midfielder Chen Tao is one of the few marquee players remaining from Aerbin’s cash splashing days and they have also maintained the services of sturdy Swedish centre back Nicklas Backman.
Prospects: While the financial difficulties remain, Aerbin have survived to play in 2015 and will be strong favourites for an instant return to the Super League. On paper, they should have been too good to go down and, despite the departure of several key players, they maintain a nucleus of players that, on paper, should be too good to stay down. There’s a strong possbibility that a Dalianless Super League will remain a one year anomaly.
Beijing BG – 2014: L1 4th – Predicted 2015 finish: 2nd
History: Beijing BG entered League Two in 2009 as Beijing Baxy and, after failing to gain promotion, simply purchased the struggling League One side Beijing Hongdeng in order to take their place in the league for 2010.
A couple of mid-table finishes followed before a dreadful 2012 saw a fifteenth placed finish that would have been enough for relegation to League Two had Dalian Shide’s demise not left an extra space in the top two divisions.
New Head Coach Goran Tomic guided the team to seventh in 2013, before confounding expectations and taking them to fourth last season. Baxy were still in with a chance of promotion on the final day of the season last year and Tomic was rewarded for his exploits by being given the 2014 League One coach of the year award.
Changes: The purchase of the club by Beijing Enterprises Holding ltd. led to massive changes in the capital, not least the switch from the name Baxy to BG. One of the first acts of the ambitious new owners was to recognise Tomic’s achievements in 2014 by firing him and bringing in former Dalian Aerbin and Beijing Guo’an coach Aleksander Stanojevic. The remit is to get the side into the Super League within two years and so BG have had an accordingly busy transfer window.
Stanojevic has brought in fellow Serbian Danko Lazovic from Partizan to play in the attack and goalkeeper Jiang Bo makes a permanent move to the capital after spending last season on loan from Hanghou Greentown. The team’s other signings all arrive after spending 2014 playing in the Super League. Tidy Brazilian centre back Eder Lima and Colombian striker Carmelo Valencia both make the short trip from Tianjin TEDA, while Yan Xiangchuang and Xu Dong come in from Harbin Yiteng. Highly regarded midfielder Lv Peng has moved from Dalian Aerbin and Tang Jiashu comes from Hangzhou after spending the season on loan with Shanghai Shenxin.
The foreign trio of Lucien Goian, Felipe and Ivan Bozic were all let go and BG’s only other loss of note is a significant one in the shape of Li Zhichao who moves up a league to Henan Jianye after scoring seven goals from midfield in 2014.
Players to watch: Lazovic is 31 and has never been a prolific scorer in his career, but the former international comes with a CV featuring the likes of Feyenord, PSV and Zenit St Petersburg as former employers, and so should be able to function well at this level.
Valencia only managed seven goals for TEDA last season, but he’s a great athlete who ought to be able to exploit League One defenses. Finally, Yan Xiangchuang is coming off an excellent few months with Yiteng in which he re-established himself as a top level player after a year and a half absent from the game.
Prospects: Fourth place was an over-achievement last season, but it will be a disappointment this. The new owners want promotion within two years, but there is every reason to believe it can be achieved ahead of schedule. Provided all the new players gel quickly enough, a Super League Beijing derby looks like a real prospect for 2016.
Harbin Yiteng – 2014: CSL 15th – Predicted 2015 finish: 3rd
History: While the team has had the Yiteng moniker since 1994, it bounced around between Dalian, Harbin and Shandong for several years before finally settling in the Ice City in 2011. That year they were promoted from League Two and spent two seasons in the second tier before winning promotion to the Super League in 2013.
Harbin’s first ever season in the top flight proved a challenging one and, despite putting up a commendable fight, they were mathematically relegated with two games to spare.
Changes: The Brazilian attacking duo of Dori and Rodrigo have both departed with the former, who managed 11 Super League goals last season, relocating to Hohhot Zhongyou. Yan Xiangchuang, who briefly reinvigorated the side after arriving last summer, moves back to Beijing with BG and will be joined there by full back Xu Dong. Aged centre back, Fofo is also gone, as are Han Deming, Shao Shuai and goalkeepers Guo Chunquan and Han Fengtang who started 26 games between them last season.
Colombian striker Jair Renoso arrives from Cobreloa of Chile while Bai Xiaolei travels north to fill the goalkeeping void after a career as a back up at Beijing Guo’an. Midfielder Li Xiaoting will be welcomed back to Yiteng on loan after two years with Changchun Yatai.
Players to Watch: New recruit, Renoso is a bit of an X factor, but fellow foreign players Ricardo Steer and Adam Hughes are both going into their fourth seasons with the club and know all about League One having already secured a promotion in 2013.
Domestically, left-winger Bu Xin is among the more creative squad members and, among those still with Yiteng, looked like the Chinese player most capable of unlocking Super League defences in 2014.
Prospects: Having just come down from the Super League, Harbin are justifiably among the favourites to finish in the top two this season, but that will be easier said than done. Based on their off-season losses, the squad is probably weaker now than it was at this stage last year, and their Super League struggles demonstrated how that team was not significantly above upper League One level. It would be great to have such a well supported club back in the top division, but an instant return looks to be a little beyond them.
Wuhan Zall – 2014: L1 3rd – Predicted 2015 finish: 4th
Hunan Billows – 2014: L1 6th – Predicted 2015 finish: 5th
History: Based in Changsha, the team was formed in 2007 and won promotion to League One three years later. Since then, they have largely been a mid-table side whose highest position was fourth in 2011. Last season started very well for Billows as they looked like serious promotion contenders in the first ten games before gradually falling away and levelling off to achieve a sixth-placed finish.
Changes: Bulgarian Head Coach Aleksander Stankov has been drafted in to replace Huang Cheng, and Hunan will be hoping that he can repeat his 2011 feat of guiding Dalian Aerbin to promotion from League One. In order to help Stankov achieve that goal, the club has made a number signings that should significantly bolster the team’s attacking options.
Foremost among these is Chen Zijie who arrives after a career spent at Shaanxi Chanba/Guizhou Renhe. Chen is a forward who actually originally planned to move back to Xi’an with the newly created Shaanxi Wuzhou before they dissolved and will now play his football in Changsha instead. A potentially even more exciting prospect than Chen is Li Xiang who became League One’s most surprising star of 2014 when he scored fifteen goals for Beijing BIT to become the league’s second highest domestic scorer after Chongqing Lifan’s Wang Dong.
Montenegrin attacking midfielder Igor Burzanovic joins the team after a spell playing in Kazakhstan and a trio of Taiwanese players, Chen Wei-chuan, Chen Chao-an and established international Wu Chun-ching add depth to the squad. Among the departures, only German born Hong Kong citizen Andy Nagelen and Serbian forward Jovan Damjanovic are worthy of note.
Players to watch: Of the returning players, Colombian striker Luiz Carlos Cabezas is the one to keep an eye after a fifteen goal haul in 2014. Otherwise, it’s new arrivals Chen Zijie and Li Xiang who have the potential to light up the league in 2015. Chen may have struggled a little in Guizhou last season but he should be a top player at this level and if Li can get anywhere near recreating last year’s goalscoring exploits League One defences will dread seeing Hunan Billows’ name on the fixture list.
Prospects: Last season’s promising start gave an indication of what the club is capable of and they’ve strengthened well this winter with the addition of both an experienced coach and exciting attacking options. Should Stankov get the new players integrated early they could be real contenders for a place in 2016’s Super League. This year may be a little too soon for a top two finish, but they are unlikely to fall away from the chasing pack like they did last season.
Hebei CFFC – 2014: L1 14th – Predicted 2015 finish: 6th
History: Hebei CFFC have been around for four years. They entered League Two in 2011 and were knocked out in the promotion playoffs in 2012 despite being heavy favourites and topping the northern league. Ascension to League One arrived a year later, and the team consolidated their position in the professional ranks by finishing fourteenth in 2014.
Changes: The club, which was known as Hebei Zhongji in 2014, was purchased by the China Fortune Land Development Company in late January, and so the name actually stands for Hebei China Fortune FC. The new owners immediately sought a new, big name head coach and appointed Radomir Antic in place of Uruguayan Alejandro Larrea. The Serbian has a very impressive CV, including Real Madrid and the Serbian national team, and also has experience in China after guiding Shandong Luneng to second place in the 2013 Super League season.
Due to the late change in ownership and management, transfer activity was on hold for a while, but the club has more than made up for lost time. This year’s squad will feature eleven new faces with 33-year-old centre back Du Wei the most well known among the Chinese ones. The veteran arrives on a permanent deal from Shandong Luneng where he played under Antic.
Nenad Millijas, who also played under Antic for Serbia at the 2010 World Cup, arrives from Turkey with experience of playing in the Premier League with Wolverhampton Wanderers under his belt. Millijas’s countryman Miroslav Radovic comes in after over eight years with Legia Warsaw. The forward was a prominent part of Legia’s two straight league titles in 2013 and 2014 and is rated by many as the best foreign player in this season’s League One. Finally, Norwegian forward Ibba Laajab joins after two prolific years in his home country with Bodo/Glimt.
In terms of departures, the foreign trio of Andres Fernandez, Andres Marquez and Givestin N’Suki are all gone, along with seven other members of last year’s first team squad.
Players to watch: New signing Du Wei may be 33, but the 2002 World Cup veteran has won 68 international caps and brings a vast amount of experience to the defense. Milijas should also be a very useful signing, but the man to watch is undoubtedly Radovic. Should he live up to his hype, he could well be the League One player of the season.
Prospects: On the back of all the winter activity, there has been a lot of hype that the team can jump from relegation candidates to promotion in a single season. That may be a bit premature, but they should be markedly improved and may not be too far away from the promotion shake-up in November.
Qingdao Hainiu – 2014: L1 12th – Predicted 2015 finish 7th
History: Hainiu only came into being in 2013 and immediately won promotion from League Two as champions in their inaugural season. Surrounded by much hype, Hainiu’s maiden year in League One started well enough with the team climbing as high as sixth in the league and making it all the way to an unlikely CFA Cup semi-final, but an absolutely shocking second half of the league season saw them pick up a total of eight points in their last sixteen games and go the final thirteen matches without a win.
Changes: As he has done throughout the team’s existence, Su Maozhen remains in charge and, just like last winter, their have been substantial changes in personnel. Among the biggest domestic moves are Ma Long’s permanent switch from Shandong Luneng after a year on loan with the club and defender Wan Houliang’s arrival after being released by Guizhou Renhe.
On the foreigner front, the trio of Kim Seung-yong, Dorde Rakic and Goran Gogic have arrived from Central Coast Mariners and, in the case of the latter two, Red Star Belgrade. South Korean Kim is a winger who played in every game of Ulsan Hyundai’s victorious Champions’ League campaign of 2012, while Rakic and Gogic are a pair of Serbians who play as a striker and defensive midfielder, respectively.
To make way for the new foreign contingent, Yves Ekwalla Herman, Vladimir Voskoboinikov and Kelly Youga have all departed, and Hainiu have released five Chinese squad members.
Players to watch: Kim Seung-yong had a rough time of it in Australia but was a major part of the best club side in Asia less than three years and so could bring some real quality to the league if he can recapture his form. Elsewhere, Wan Houliang may have been phased out of Guizhou but still has something to offer, while attacker Qu Bo is by far the most famous Chinese player in Hainiu’s ranks. Now 33, Qu also transferred from Renhe, halfway through last season, but his time with Hainiu so far has been blighted by injuries. While way past his best, Qu has won 79 caps for his country and brings a wealth of experience to Hainiu’s line-up.
Prospects: Hainiu’s potential was probably over-estimated last year, but now they have established themselves in League One, they have a strong foundation from which to build. A key factor in their season will be whether or not the winter break has been enough to help them banish memories of their dreadful form at the end of 2014, or whether they are still low on confidence coming into 2015. On paper, the team is an outside bet for promotion, but realistically a season sitting comfortably in mid-table awaits – provided they can remember how to win.
Qingdao Jonoon – 2014: L1 5th – Predicted 2015 finish: 8th
History: Jonoon have been playing in the city of Qingdao under one name or another since 1990 and spent seventeen uninterrupted years in the top flight between 1997 and 2013 without ever finishing higher than sixth. Two years ago the team were relegated on the last day of the season which ushered in a tumultuous 2014 for the Shandong club.
They were among the favourites for an immediate return to the top flight but disappointing on field performances were over shadowed by various off field wranglings. There was a protracted argument with former player Gabriel Melkam over unpaid wages/match-fixing allegations, racist chanting at the expense of Shenzhen Ruby’s Babacar Gueye and, most significantly, a belated fine and seven point deduction over a forged contract used to try and prevent Liu Jian from transfering to Guangzhou Evergrande on a free transfer last winter.
The seven point loss ended up having absolutely no effect on Qingdao’s final league position of fifth, but there is no doubt that the distractions away from the pitch had an impact on the team’s largely disappointing performances.
Changes: Slovenian Head Coach Tomaz Kavcic remains in charge after taking over half way through last season, and he is overseeing significant off-season changes on the Shandong Peninsula with Honduran World Cup participant Osman Chavez, Mauricio Castillo and former Super League golden boot winner Christian Danalache all gone.
Zou Zheng was the team’s best domestic player, and he moved to Guangzhou Evergrande just in time for Christmas while five other members of last year’s first team squad have departed.
Brazilian Reis and journeyman Ivorian Ismael Beko Fofana arrive as new forwards to little fanfare, while defensive midfielder Jorge Claros looks like an interesting pick up. The Honduran comes in from Sporting Kansas City of the MLS and has also spent time in Scotland with Hibernian.
Veteran defenders Zhao Peng and He Yang both drop down a league to join the club from Guangzhou Evergrande and Tianjin TEDA, respectively. Among a few other low key signings, Dilmurat Batur is the most interesting given that the Uighur is the only Chinese player to have ever played in the Omani league.
Players to watch: Among the foreigners, Jorge Claros looks like he could have an influential role in the team. Meanwhile, the departure of Zou Zheng means that last season’s best Chinese player is gone, but midfielder Wang Wei remains having scored nine goals last season in his first year with the club.
Prospects: It will be almost impossible for Jonoon to replicate the behind the scenes problems which blighted their 2014 this year, but that doesn’t mean things will get any better on the field. The team looks no stronger than last year and the strengthening of those around them means that the one time top flight stalwarts are likely to move further away from the promotion places and closer to mid-table in 2015.