The top half of League One is full of teams investing new money or trying to make a quick return to the Super League, but it’s a different story lower down the league where many teams struggle just to survive.
Three teams from last year’s League One crop have all dropped out of existence. Relegated Chengdu Tiancheng folded not long after the season’s end, while Shenyang Zhongze announced they were winding up on transfer deadline day, giving their players no chance to find a new club. Some time in between, Shaanxi Wuzhou, who had taken over the registration of Guangdong Sunray Cave, failed to register for 2015 and denied the people of Xi’an a professional football team for the second time in less than five years.
All the upheaval has rescued a couple of teams facing 2015 in League Two and has created an interesting battle amongst the some of the League’s weaker sides.
Tianjin Songjiang – 2014: L1 7th – Predicted 2015 finish: 9th
History: Songjiang have been in existence since 2007 and have a fairly straightforward history. Four years in League Two ended with promotion in 2010 and have been followed by four years of mid-table obscurity in League One.
Last season saw the side recover from a slow start to finish a respectable seventh without ever looking like going through the excitement of a promotion battle or the drama of a relegation fight. The club also has one of the best football specific stadiums in China.
Changes: Croatian Drazen Besek became the clubs fourth manager in two years when he was appointed in December as a replacement for the outgoing Manuel Cajuda. It’s Bezek’s third year in a row starting a League One season with a different team, having previously been in charge of Hunan Billows and Wuhan Zall.
On the field, changes have been scant, with all of last season’s foreigners remaining in place and the club’s Chinese acquisitions being relative unknowns. A lot of fat was also trimmed from the squad, but the nucleus of last year’s side remains in place.
Players to watch: Slim pickings in this regard, although Brazilian Nei, who turns 35 this year was last season’s top scorer with 10 goals. It had actually been reported earlier in the transfer window that the striker would be leaving the club as a consequence of age and injuries, but that seems to have been reversed and he will be returning in 2015.
It might also be worth keeping an eye on Besek in case he recreates a moment like this.
Xinjiang Tianshan Leopard – 2014: L1 10th – Predicted 2015 finish: 10th
History: The team has only existed for three years and came into being when Hubei Huakaier entered League Two in 2012. Based in Huangshi, a small city in Hubei Province, the team surprised everyone by winning promotion in their debut season and then surviving their first year in League One with a thirteenth place finish.
However, it was always going to be difficult for a place like Huangshi to support a professional football team and it was announced in February of last year that the club would be relocating to Urumqi. With only a month to prepare in their new surroundings, they were, unsurprisingly, slow to get going last season but results recovered and Xinjiang placed a respectable 10th in the final table.
Changes: Manager Li Jun remains in charge, as he has done throughout the duration of the team’s brief existence and the team has made three interesting signings this winter.
Shewket Yalqun’s loan move from Guangzhou Evergrande is intended to generate interest amongst the local indigenous population. The Uighur is a pacy winger who spent last season on loan with Qingdao Hainiu.
Christian Dalanche won the 2012 Super League golden boot with Jiangsu Sainty, but his career has been on a gradual decline ever since and he managed just ten goals in last year’s League One with Qingdao Jonoon. Finally, Felipe was picked up from Beijing BG after being released despite scoring twelve goals last season.
Veteran Costa Rican striker Johnny Woodly was released after six years in China and 16 league goals last season, and compatriot Alan Aleman suffered the same fate.
Players to watch: He may not be one of the best players in the division, but Brazilian centre back Vicente, who turns 36 this year, is about to begin his 13th season in the Chinese professional leagues which may well make him China’s longest serving foreign player ever. Should Dalanche recapture anything like his form from two years ago he could make an impact in Urumqi, while big things will be expected of local boy Yalqun.
Prospects: The squad is still largely comprised of the same over achievers that unexpectedly rose into the professional leagues and, while some smart additions have been made, the team shouldn’t be expected to do much better than last season’s tenth place finish. Not surprisingly given the remote location, Xinjiang picked up seven of its eight 2014 league wins at home. Results in Urumqi will once again be key as the team looks to consolidate its position as a mid-table League One side.
Shenzhen FC – 2014: L1 8th – Predicted 2015 finish: 11th
History: In one guise or another, the team has been around since the dawn of the Chinese professional era in 1994. They were first promoted to the Jia-A League in 1998 and actually won the inaugural Super League title in 2004.
Since then they have been on a steady decline and were relegated to League One in 2011. Last season’s mid-table finish was overshadowed by a long running wage dispute and the club’s existence looked seriously under threat for a while.
Changes: Li Yi remains in charge of a club that seems to have restored some semblance of stability over the winter. However, finances clearly remain tight as most of the domestic pick ups have been players left clubless by the relocation and subsequent demise of local rivals Guangdong Sunray Cave.
The only foreign acquisition has been that of former Senegal international forward Andre Senghor. Before being picked up by Shenzhen, Senghor had been without a club for over a year.
The two major departures are Brazilian midfielder Bruno and goalkeeper Zhang Xunwei. In fact, Zhang had already stop playing for the club at the back end of last season because of an argument over wages and is now starting in the Super League for Shanghai Shenxin.
Players to watch: Babacar, Babacar, Babacar. Senegalese striker Babacar Gueye goes into his fourth season with the club having managed a phenomenal 62 goals over the last three years. The 29-year-old actually fell off a bit in 2014 by only grabbing 16 goals having finished as the League One golden boot winner in his first two campaigns. It is quite miraculous that Shenzhen have held onto him for another season given all the turmoil at the club.
Prospects: Considering all the off field distractions, the team did well to finish eighth last season, but look to be on a downward trajectory. That being said, if Babacar can maintain anything like his form of the previous three years the team will have more than enough about them to stay above the relegation fight.
Hohhot Zhongyou – 2014: L2 2nd – Predicted 2015 finish: 12th
History: The team played its first season in League Two in 2012 based in Taiyuan, Shanxi province. Following a one year absence, they gained promotion in 2014 after a penalty shoot-out victory over Guizhou Zhicheng in last season’s League Two playoff semi-final.
However, the people of Taiyuan’s celebrations were short lived as it became clear that the club didn’t have the financial backing to survive in the professional leagues and was promptly relocated to Inner Mongolia.
Changes: The move north is clearly the biggest change, although manager Wang Bo remains in charge. Officially speaking, Zhongyou have made 21 signings this winter, but the vast majority of them are the permanent capture of young players who were on loan with the club last season.
Ascending the leagues means that foreign players have to be found and two of the three new signings arrive after spending 2014 in the Super League. Striker Dori managed 11 goals for the relegated Harbin Yiteng, while centre back Jonas Salley first moved to China in 2009 and, most recently, competed in back to back AFC Champions’ League campaigns with Guizhou Renhe.
Not much is known about third foreign signing William, but they have also added a couple of decent Chinese players in the shape of former Harbin Yiteng goalkeeper Han Fengtang and Wuhan Zall winger Wang Yunlong.
Players to Watch: Despite being wildly inconsistent last season, Dori’s strike rate on a struggling Super League team means he is worth watching out for. Salley, who has already been made captain, will add experience and fiery determination to an inexperienced defence.
Han Fengtang had plenty of opportunity to impress while regularly under the cosh with Harbin last year and Wang Yunlong could surprise a few people after bagging eight goals last season while on loan at Zhongyou’s League Two promotion rivals Jiangxi Liansheng.
Prospects: With a team largely comprised of loanees, Zhongyou scraped a promotion as League Two runners-up. Many of those loanees are now back on a permanent basis, but the addition of some decent foreign players could prove key to Zhongyou’s survival. Their first year in League One won’t be easy, but they should still have enough to beat the drop.
Beijing Institute of Technology – 2014: L1 9th – Predicted 2015 finish: 13th
History: The university based side return for a ninth straight year in League One after winning promotion from League Two in 2006 at the first attempt. That team made history as the first student side to ascend into the professional ranks and, although they flirted with relegation in 2011 and 2012, the club has recently consolidated itself with two straight ninth place finishes.
Although BIT were close to mid-table all season, it was actually quite an exciting year at the institute as the team’s games involved more goals than anybody else’s. Their 46 in the goals scored column was only topped by first placed side Chongqing Lifan and the 57 in the goals against column was only “beaten’ by bottom side Yanbian Quanyang Spring.
Changes: It’s been a quiet winter on campus where Zhang Donping remains in charge. The only significant signing has been that of Uruguayan forward Andres Marquez who makes the short trip from fellow League One side Hebei CFFC where he scored 13 league goals last season.
Fellow Uruguayan Martin Colombo’s departure cleared the foreign player space for Marquez’s arrival, but he won’t be missed as much as Li Xiang who moves to Hunan Billows after netting an impressive 15 goals last season.
Players to watch: Marquez’s 13 goals on a team that finished fourteenth last season demonstrates that he has the pedigree to produce in this league. Otherwise, Han Guanhui was last season’s highest scorer after Li Xiang with six goals.
Prospects: Without taking any moves to strengthen a leaky defence, while also losing their best attacker, BIT may struggle next season. As history has shown, they will probably still have enough about them to stay in the league, but they may find themselves much closer to the relegation struggle than they have been over the last couple of years.
Yanbian Changbaishan – 2014: L1 16th – Predicted 2015 finish: 14th
History: Based in Yanji in the Yanbian Korean Autonomous Prefecture, Jilin. The team has long had a strong Korean identity with most of its Chinese players ethnic Koreans and many of its foreign players and coaches coming from South Korea.
The club was originally founded in 1994 and spent the first six seasons of its existence in the Chinese top league, before a financial crisis led it to sell its Jia A league place. After reforming in 2001, Yanbian were promoted to League One in time for the 2005 season and have remained there ever since. However, last year, despite increased investment, the club had a disastrous season and finished bottom of the league with only eighteen points.
After a period preparing for life in League Two, they were given a reprieve when Shaanxi Wuzhou, previously known as Guangdong Sunray Cave, folded. With last year’s fifteenth placed team Chengdu Tiancheng also biting the dust, Yanbian were invited to return for an eleventh straight season in the second tier.
Changes: Former Pohang Steelers player Park Tae-ha takes over from Gao Zhongxun for his first job as a head coach. With the team expecting to compete in what is effectively an amateur league, two of their best players, Chi Zhongguo and Cui Ren, were allowed to leave for the Super League’s Shanghai Shenxin. Foreign players Serge Roland, Kim Ki-soo and Kim Do-hyung also had to be let go.
To replace them, Jailton Paraiba arrives after three years with Shanghai Shenxin and young Gambian forward Steve comes in on loan from Hangzhou Greentown after the Zhejiang side found themselves with a surplus of foreigners. The final signing is Korean forward Ha Tae-gyun who has signed on loan from Suwon Bluewings.
Players to Watch: Jailton Paraiba is a number 10 with Super League experience but Steve could prove to be a shrewd pick up. The 20-year-old won the Gambian golden boot with Real de Banjul in 2014 and Hangzhou originally bought with the intention of including him in their squad. Only Greentown’s late signing of Anslemo Ramon kept him out of the team and Yanbian have benefited by getting their hands on a potential gem.
Prospects: Yanbian managed just three wins last season and have lost two of their best Chinese players since then. That being said, their foreigners look significantly better this year and they might just have enough to beat the drop in 2015.
Guizhou Zhicheng – 2014: L2 3rd – Predicted 2015 finish: 15th
The club entered League Two in 2008 and gained their first promotion to League One in 2010. Since then they have become a true yo-yo club by being relegated and then promoted in each of the subsequent years.
In fact, the club only finished third in League Two last year and spent most of the winter preparing for another season in bottom tier of the Chinese football period. However, Shenyang Zhongze’s demise in late February gave Zhicheng a lifeline. With Yanbian Changbaishan already restored in to League One in place of Shaanxi Wuzhou and Chengdu Tiancheng gone, the Guiyang side stepped in to fill the void at the very last moment.
Changes: Zhicheng were actually granted a spot in League One on transfer deadline day, but their unique circumstances meant they were given special dispensation to recruit three foreigners before the season kicked off.
36-year-old Spanish centre back Iban Cuabrado arrived after being released by Shanghai SIPG and attacking midfielder Rodrigo also comes in after spending 2014 in the Super League with Harbin Yiteng. Former Qingdao Hainiu centre back Yves Ekwalla Herman rounds out the trio and there have also been a couple of low key domestic signings that are unlikely to get the pulse racing.
Players to watch: Cuabrado was well respected in Shanghai but at 36 one wonders how much he has left to give. Rodrigo looks like a good signing on paper, but he managed just one Super League goal in 2014 despite being an attacking midfielder. Domestically, Ilhamjan Iminjan and Li Yingjian netted seven goals a piece for the club last season.
Prospects: With such little time to prepare and a less than stellar squad, it looks as though Zhicheng will be switching divisions for a seventh straight year at the end of 2015. If they’re not too far off the pace come the summer transfer window they may be able to salvage something, but that looks very optimistic for a team that has essentially been brought into the league to make up the numbers.
Jiangxi Liansheng – 2014: L2 1st – Predicted 2015 finish: 16th
History: When the province’s previous club Nanchang Hengyuan morphed into Shanghai Shenxin after the 2011 season, Liansheng entered League Two to fill the void in time for 2012. Last season, at the third time of trying, they were promoted to League One as playoff champions, despite finishing third in the southern division.
Changes: With their League One status meaning they are able to add foreign players to their squad, Liansheng have turned to a trio of Brazilians to strengthen their ranks. Demerson is a centre back, while Jaja and Adi Rocha are both attacking players. The three have all been plucked from relative obscurity and only time will tell if the Jiangxi scouts have earned their money.
Elsewhere, the domestic signings do little to fire the imagination and the side failed to regain the services of Wang Yunlong and Qu Cheng who managed 14 goals between them while on loan in 2014. Wang moves to possible relegation rivals Hohhot Zhongyou, while Qu has been rewarded with a spot in the first team squad at parent club Jiangsu Sainty.
Players to Watch: With the foreigners an unknown quantity, there really is little on offer here. Veteran midfielder Li Gang was in the Super League as recently as 2013 with Wuhan Zall, while 36-year-old captain Xin Feng has been plying his trade as a centre back at various levels since making his Shanghai Shenhua debut in 1998.
Prospects: Not good, really. The team may be League Two champions, but there squad is aging and there have been no significant additions. It would be nice to see the city of Nanchang maintain a team in the top two tiers of Chinese football, but that achievement will probably be beyond Liansheng’s grasp in 2015.