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League One Season Review – Part 1: The top six including next year’s CSL sides Yanbian and Hebei

It’s been over a month now since the League One season came to its conclusion and it’s time for WEF to take a look back at how each team did in our 2015 season review. In the first part, we look back at the top six sides including the incredible story of Yanbian Changbaishan’s resurrection and the narrow promotion of big spending Hebei CFFC. Dalian Aerbin, Beijing BG, Harbin Yiteng and Hohhot Zhongyou are also included. Thank you to Adam Riddler for providing the section on Harbin Yiteng and check back next week for part 2.

Yanbian Changbaishan     2015 position -1st     2014 position – 16th     WEF pre-season prediction – 14th

Overview

There are not enough superlatives to describe Yanbian’s 2015 promotion season. When South Korean Park Tae-ha was appointed head coach in December of last year he expected to be challenging for promotion, but it was meant to be an immediate return to League One that the rookie boss was fighting for.

Yanbian manager Park Tae-ha

Yanbian manager Park Tae-ha

After a 2014 season which saw the Yanji side relegated with just 18 points from 30 games, they were handed a January reprieve when they were reinstated to League One after Shaanxi Wuzhou failed to register for the season. With everybody expecting the team to be struggling near the bottom of the table, they stunned everybody by going unbeaten in their first 21 games of the season and topping the division from round 12 onwards.

If that wasn’t remarkable enough, they did so while playing the most entertaining football in the division and in front of a rabid home crowd that averaged a league high of over 24,000. There is a lot of cynicism surrounding Chinese football, but Yanbian’s incredible 2015 is a reminder of just how beautiful the game can be.

Defining Game

There are so many to choose from here. Back-to-back wins over Dalian Aerbin and Beijing BG in late May/early June proved that Yanbian had to be taken seriously, while a 3-0 win over Hebei CFFC in round 17 was mighty impressive.

There were also back-to-back hammerings of Beijing Institute of Technology and Xinjiang by the respective scorelines of 4-0 and 6-1, with the former match featuring a tremendous 34-pass goal which demonstrates what this team is capable of. However, Yanbian’s season truly reached its zenith when they demolished promotion rivals Beijing BG 5-0 in round 27.

Coming into the home game, Yanbian had won just two of their last five and looked in danger of succumbing to a capitulation that had been anticipated all year. After being bested for much of the first half, Ha Tae-goon gave Yanbian the lead just before the interval. That proved a suitable platform for the hosts to rip apart their opponents in the second period with Ha going on to complete his hat-trick and Steve adding two more (including an outrageous 18-yard rabona).

Player of the Season

Ha Tae-goon celebrates another goal with Steve in the background

Ha Tae-goon celebrates another goal with Steve in the background

All of Yanbian’s foreign trio of Ha Tae-goon, Steve and Jailton Paraiba could have walked into any League One line-up this season based on their form. The 52 goals they bagged between them was more than the combined total of all but one of the division’s sides and only one behind second placed Hebei’s total haul.

Jailton Paraiba was responsible for nine of them, but also had 10 assists to his name, while Steve grabbed seventeen of his own despite missing four mid-season games through suspension. However, Ha Tae-goon‘s league leading 26 goal haul is impossible to overlook and makes him the player of the year. Very honourable mentions go to the centre back pairing of team captain Cui Min and Zhao Ming who took care of things at their end of the field with confidence and composure.

Looking Ahead

There are plenty of people expecting Yanbian to struggle in their first top flight season since 2000 and it’s easy to see why. Only five of their regular starting line-up this season is different from the squad that was relegated to the third tier just one year ago and the amount of investment enjoyed by the club pales in comparison to any other CSL clubs.

However, a look at some of their performances against League One’s wealthier clubs this season proves that the team is not easily overawed and can take it to squads that are considered stronger than their’s on paper. It’s also worth noting that their will be off season investment from the Shenzhen based Funde Life Insurance Group, although it will likely be far less than that enjoyed by fellow promoted side Hebei CFFC.

Park Tae-ha has done a remarkable job organising the players into a high-pressing and quick counter-attacking side and the players looked among the fittest in all of China this season, not just the second tier. That being said, the squad certainly needs strengthening, particularly in the central midfield and full back positions.

Ha Tae-goon will be back after signing a two year contract mid-season, and it also looks likely that Jailton Paraiba will return in 2016. The fate of Steve remains uncertain, as he was on a one year loan from Hangzhou Greentown but, either way, Yanbian will have at least two foreign player slots to fill. The key this winter is going to be bolstering the squad without upsetting the system and work ethic which Park has installed.

Hebei CFFC     2015 position -2nd     2014 position – 14th     WEF pre-season prediction – 6th

Overview

After finishing one place above the relegation zone in 2014, Hebei Zhongji were bought by wealthy real estate company China Fortune Land and enjoyed heavy preseason investment. Former Barcelona, Real Madrid and Shandong Luneng head coach Radomir Antic was placed in charge and big name domestic and foreign players were introduced in the shape of Miroslav Radovic, Nenad Milijas and former international centre back Du Wei.

Hebei manager Li Tie celebrates promotion with his players

Hebei manager Li Tie celebrates promotion with his players

The club also moved from Shijiazhuang to the port city of Qinhuangdao and they were immediately placed among the promotion favourites for the 2015 season. However, Radovic picked up a serious injury early in the season and Antic only lasted 22 games before being let go with the club in fifth in the table.

The veteran Serb manager was replaced by China national team assistant manager Li Tie and the team picked up 22 points from their last eight games as they pipped Dalian Aerbin for promotion with a home win over Shenzhen FC on the final day of the season. An Aerbin supporters group may have alleged foul play surrounding Hebei’s opponents during that run-in, but nothing has been proven and Hebei are set to start 2016 in the Super League just two seasons after winning promotion from League Two.

Defining Game

Hebei won their last seven on the bounce, but they really announced themselves as serious promotion contenders when they grabbed a 2-0 win over Dalian at the beginning of May. Two goals from Milijas were enough to hand Dalian their first defeat of the season and announced that Hebei were to be taken seriously after a slow start to the season. Significantly, though, the result proved pivotal in the end of season shake-up as the Qinhuangdao club finished two points clear of their opponents that day.

Player of the Season

Nenad Milijas (on knees) was instrumental for Hebei this season

Nenad Milijas (on knees) was instrumental for Hebei this season

12 goals in 15 games suggests that the big money summer signing of Edu to replace the crocked Radovic was vital for Hebei’s late promotion run, but the Brazilian forward only played half the season. Over the course of the entire year, it’s hard to look beyond creative midfielder Nenad Milijas when deciding on Hebei’s player of the year.

The 32-year-old former Wolverhampton Wanderers player went missing in some games, but he contributed 13 goals and seven assists throughout the season to guide his side into the top two. On the domestic side, Du Wei received plaudits for his calming presence at centre back, but was prone to the occasional error. It’s also worth noting that under-23 international midfielder Luo Senwen, on loan from Shandong Luneng, looked a cut above the vast majority of his second tier peers.

Looking Ahead

We can expect another summer of massive investment as Hebei look to consolidate during their first ever season in the top flight. Wealthy real estate backers and the presence of former Guangzhou Evergrande assistant manager Li Tie have sparked inevitable comparisons with the five-time Super League champions in the Chinese media, but there’s little chance that Hebei are going to challenge the division’s top sides in their first year.

China Fortune Land will no doubt splash the cash, but their domestic playing staff is currently among the weakest in the top flight and they can only add five names to it. With players apparently reluctant to move to the relative outpost of Qinhuangdao, the owners may struggle to establish the kind of squad which matches their vision.

Dalian Aerbin     2015 position -3rd     2014 position – 15th (CSL)     WEF pre-season prediction – 1st

Overview

Having been narrowly relegated from the Super League the year before, Dalian were justifiably considered among the favourites for promotion prior to this season, but they fell short thanks to a mid-season slump which saw them pick up five points from eight games. Aerbin were still top when they lost to Yanbian Changbaishan in round 11, but by the end of a 0-0 draw with Wuhan Zall in round 18, they were down in sixth and looked to be out of the promotion race.

Dalian players after their disappointing end to the season

Dalian players after their disappointing end to the season

They then won nine and drew three of their remaining twelve games, but it wasn’t quite enough as Hebei CFFC finished two points above them to deny them a place in 2016’s Super League. It’s hard to deny that one of the key factors in Dalian’s turnaround was the mid-season investment of the Yifang group who are linked with the city’s successful footballing past thanks to their connections with Wang Jianlin and the Wanda Group.

The investment came too late for the transfer window, but it prompted dramatically increased win bonuses for the players and swelled the crowd from fewer than 6,000 before to a maximum of 42,591 for a crunch game against Yanbian in round 26. That game ended in a draw and a controversial tie in Harbin the following weekend gave Hebei the initiative which they did not relinquish.

Defining Game

A 4-0 spanking of Xinjiang on the opening day of the season showed that Aerbin meant business, but they couldn’t remain that dominant throughout the year. As we’ve already seen, matches against Yanbian have proved vital for Dalian this year and that 2-0 defeat in Yanji back in May was significant in derailing Dalian’s season.

Not only did it trigger a dreadful run of form, it tipped the division’s balance in favour of the eventual champions. Despite Yifang’s millions, the marker had been set and Dalian’s seemingly easy route to the top flight had been well and truly scuppered.

Player of the Season

Nicklas Backman (3) and Bruno Meneghel (11) both had good years on the northeast coast

Nicklas Backman (3) and Bruno Meneghel (11) both had good years on the northeast coast

One player who was absent from that loss in Yanbian was Bruno Meneghel who proved to be an irreplaceable part of Dalian’s attack. The Brazilian attacker bagged 19 goals and 8 assists during the season which accounted for almost 60% of the northeastern club’s attacking output.

Elsewhere, Swedish centre back Nicklas Backman is worth a mention as he performed excellently after struggling a little in the Super League the year before, and was a key part of the division’s stingiest defense. It’s also worth noting that goalkeeper Zhang Chong’s went on League One record breaking run of 791 minutes without conceding a goal.

Looking Ahead

2016 will be all about promotion as the Yifang Group look to continue their quest to resurrect Dalian football. The rumours are that Backman will be returning to Sweden and centre forward Mathias Ranegie’s loan spell from Premier League Watford is over and unlikely to be extended.

Backman’s loss will be a blow, but it means there is room to bring in new blood. Should the club maintain the services of Meneghel, they will need to bring in more effective attacking players to support him as he can’t do it all on his own.

Dalian will be one of the biggest spending League One clubs of the summer, but the list of players they’ve lost over the last couple of years is quite remarkable. The question is, can the newly christened Dalian Yifang do enough to attract players back to this once powerful footballing city.

Beijing BG     2015 position -4th     2014 position – 4th     WEF pre-season prediction – 2nd

Overview

Beijing BG couldn't consistently win like this in 2015

Beijing BG couldn’t consistently win like this in 2015

Despite a lot of investment over the winter from the Beijing Enterprises Group, BG were unable to improve on the fourth place finish they managed in 2014 while they were still the unfashionable Baxy. A string of new editions looked to have strengthened the side enough to push them into the top two, but former Beijing Guo’an manager Aleksander Stanojevic was unable to get the side clicking for any consistent run of games.

While remaining on the fringes of the promotion race throughout the year, BG were never able to put the kind of string of results together that Yanbian Changbaishan, Hebei CFFC and Dalian Aerbin did to propel themselves up the table. A run to the CFA Cup semi-finals, which included a famous fourth round victory over Guo’an, added some gloss to the season, although, a decisive 6-2 aggregate defeat at the hands of Shanghai Shenhua demonstrates that BG still have a lot of work to do before reaching the level of a Super League club.

Defining Game

BG’s season is can be characterised by inconsistency and struggles against weaker teams, with five of their eight league losses in 2015 coming against sides that finished outside of the top six. The most shocking of those came in round 25 when BG were still very much in the thick of the promotion race and travelled to face a Shenzhen FC side who had won just once in their last sixteen games.

BG wasted a string of early chances and were punished when their opponents went on to claim a stunning 3-0 victory. The 5-0 pasting in Yanbian two weeks later may have been more spectacular, but this result summarised BG’s ability to shoot themselves in the foot by throwing away games they were expected to win.

Player of the Season

Yan Xiangchuang performed well in his first season back in Beijing

Yan Xiangchuang performed well in his first season back in Beijing

Carmelo Valencia may have finished as the club’s top scorer with fourteen league goals, but the amount of chances the Colombian striker squandered proved costly throughout the season. Meanwhile, Serbian attacker Danko Lazovic chipped in with thirteen strikes of his own and created many of Valencia’s opportunities, but never quite controlled games as much as you would expect a 32-year-old who has Feyenord, PSV Eindhoven, Zenit St Petersburg and the Serbian national team on his CV.

Therefore, Yan Xiangchuang, who bagged six strikes of his own from the wing this season is the selection for player of the year. The former Guo’an and Harbin Yiteng player may not performed to high standards in every game, but he is undoubtedly one of the most talented domestic players in the division and wil be a key part of next season’s promotion push.

Looking Ahead

When the Beijing Enterprises Group took over in the winter, their stated goal was to make it to the Super League within two years. That means the pressure will really be on this season and we can expect the team to strengthen accordingly. It remains to be seen who the cub brings in, but a new goalkeeper wouldn’t go amiss, and it would be no great surprise to see Valencia replaced by a more clinical striker.

Harbin Yiteng     2015 position -5th     2014 position – 16th (CSL)     WEF pre-season prediction – 3rd

Overview

Heartbroken: Harbin's season ended with fan demonstrations and it looks like the club will play elsewhere in 2016

Heartbroken: Harbin’s season ended with fan demonstrations and it looks like the club will play elsewhere in 2016

Yiteng’s season has been a mixed bag this year, an encouraging start raised hopes of a return to the top-flight but the season fizzled out into mediocrity, a fifth place finish and, ultimately, with the club’s owners looking to leave Harbin. The main culprit of the unsuccessful promotion bid would be the amount of draws racked up during the season, with just under half the games yielding only one point. The well-reported off field circus that resulted from allegations of match-fixing in a 2-2 draw with Dalian Aerbin was a disappointing way to finish the year, and Yiteng look set to leave the north-east within the next few weeks.

Defining Game

The two games against north-eastern promotion rivals Dalian Aerbin sum up Harbin’s season pretty well. Both ended in 2-2 draws, reflecting a trend throughout Yiteng’s season. The second game, played at home, will be looked back upon as the beginning of the end for the club. Fans went into the game looking for a win to keep their team in the promotion race, only to leave disappointed and heartbroken at what they believed was a ‘bought-match’.

Player of the Year

Bu Xin provided a rare ray of light in an otherwise disappointing year for Harbin

Bu Xin provided a rare ray of light in an otherwise disappointing year for Harbin

Although nobody particularly stood out this season, a mention should be given to winger Bu Xin. His six goals may not be a significant contribution (although it does make him the second highest scorer in a goal-shy team), but his pace and constant attacking threat on the wing has been a ray of light in the midst of some of Yiteng’s more disappointing performances. Honorable mention to Colombian strikers Ricardo Steel and summer signing Juan Nunez who were fairly solid and grabbed some important goals throughout the season.

Looking Ahead

Yiteng’s future looks set to be played out in front of a new set of fans in a new city. The fallout from the match-fixing scandal was too damaging and the club have decided to find a new home. Chengdu seems to be the likely destination, with the club submitting an application to the Sichuan Football Association. In terms of recruitment, Yiteng will need to find goals from somewhere. The top two scorers this season only bagged 13 goals between them, and Ricardo Steel, who finished as top scorer with seven strikes, has already left the club.

Hohhot Zhongyou     2015 position -6th     2014 position – 2nd (L2)     WEF pre-season prediction – 12th

Overview

Dori celebrates a winning goal against Dalian Aerbin in a season  that Hohhot can be proud of

Dori celebrates a winning goal against Dalian Aerbin in a season that Hohhot can be proud of

Overall, a fantastic season for Hohhot who secured a top six finish in their first ever season in the second tier. The club, who moved from Taiyuan after finishing runners-up in League Two last season, even looked to be in contention for back-to-back promotions before going winless in their final seven games of the year.

Still, with impressive attendances peaking at over 38,000, Wang Bo’s men have nothing to be ashamed of in a season where they surely would have gotten more publicity had it not been for the achievements Yanbian Changbaishan.

Defining Game

Indeed, it was Yanbian who triggered Zhongyou’s poor end of season streak when they travelled to Hohhot and defeated the Inner Mongolians with a stoppage time winner in front of 38,479 fans. The hosts had been 2-0 down within twenty minutes, but had fought back to level things when William Paulista struck his second of the game in the 84th minute.

However, Hohhot finally succumbed to a stoppage time header from Jailton Paraiba that effectively knocked them out of the promotion race. It seems a little unfair to define such a relatively successful season with a defeat, but the fight Zhongyou displayed in this game demonstrates why they were able to finish sixth, while also highlighting that they ultimately just lacked the quality to ascend any higher.

Player of the Season

Jonas Salley provided Hohhot with plenty of experience and steel

Jonas Salley provided Hohhot with plenty of experience and steel

Jonas Salley provided Hohhot with plenty of experience and steel

Jonas Salley provided Hohhot with plenty of experience and steel

One of the reasons Hohhot’s ascent up the table was such a surprise, is that the backbone of their squad was largely made up of rejects from now relegated Super League side Guizhou Renhe. However, while most of those players were unheard of journeymen domestic players, one of them was fiery Australian Jonas Salley.

The 33-year-old veteran was immediately made captain and his experience while playing at either centre back or as a holding midfielder was vital in anchoring an otherwise inexperienced squad. Elsewhere, Brazilian forwards William Paulista and Dori both managed 10 goals a piece, but neither was able to do it consistently. Once promising young prospect Wang Yunlong managed five goals and five assists in the first ten games before injury derailed his season, while current promising young prospect Guo Sheng showed great potential in a season long loan from Renhe.

Looking Ahead

If this team is to take the next step, they need to strengthen over the winter and there are already signs they are looking to do so. The signing of veteran centre back Cao Huan from Hunan Billows has apparently already been made and there are rumours linking the club to former international midfielder Yang Hao who has just been released by Jiangsu Sainty.

Early indications are that Salley and Dori will return next season, while William Paulista will not be back according to reports from inside the club. Whatever happens, an active winter break will be key to this over-achieving team maintaining and building upon this season’s success.

Based in China for five years, Jamie has been exploring tiny little third tier Hubei cities without football teams or decent internet connections, but is now a regular at China League One side Wuhan Zall.

A keen football afficionado, he regularly takes in the Chinese Super League, enjoying matches in Shanghai, Hangzhou, Guangzhou and Nanjing.

Jamie is also a keen observer of the fortunes of the Chinese National side.

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