As we move into the final stretch of the CSL season, five teams find themselves mired in the relegation dog-fight. Beijing Renhe, Hebei China Fortune, Tianjin Tianhai, Shenzhen FC and Shanghai Shenhua all find themselves in and around the relegation zone. While CSL new boys Wuhan Zall as well as perennial strugglers Henan Jianye and Tianjin TEDA are all surprisingly out of harms way in the middle of the table.
Renhe are currently bottom of the CSL and a return to China League One is now all but a mathematical certainty for the Beijing based team. Renhe returned to the top-flight last year and put in a decent enough showing, finishing mid-table and five points clear of the drop. However they failed to make any serious attempts to strengthen their squad prior to this season and have paid the price.
With a sieve like defence and a blunt attack, Renhe have all the symptoms of a team doomed to relegation. Taking just one point from their last ten games it’s going to be a question of when, not if Renhe are going to be relegated. While Renhe’s demise is all but guaranteed, the question of who will join them next year in China League One is less clear.
Tianjin Tianhai look to be the next likeliest team to go down after what has been a wretched year for the northern side. The off-field issues which have dogged the club since pre-season have been a persistent distraction for the team. Tianhai have struggled to put together a solid run of results and have spent almost the entire year stuck at the wrong end of the table.
The major issue for Tianhai this year has been their flat-out inability to win games, managing just two wins so far from twenty-four matches. Conceding late goals has been a big part of this problem. Tianhai have conceded late in a number of crucial games. By far the worst case of this, this year has been their two games against fellow strugglers Shenzhen. Tianhai imploded in the away match to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory and gave away a late equaliser in the home game with some extremely sloppy defending. Had Tianhai managed to close out both of these matches, they wouldn’t be in the perilous situation they now find themselves in.
Perhaps the main reason however for Tianhai’s inability to win games this year has been the absence of a reliable goalscorer. Alexandre Pato had been the team’s main goalscoring threat for the previous few years, but left at the end of last season. Since then Tianhai have failed to bring in a viable replacement and have suffered as a result, with none of their current attacking players being able to score consistently enough to propel them out of the relegation scrap.
Shenzhen are probably the team people will be least surprised to see in the relegation mix. Shenzhen brought in a number of talented domestic players in the off-season and started off strongly. However the CSL newcomers suffered a mid-season collapse which saw them take just three points over twelve games and dragged them deep into the relegation mire.
While Shenzhen have generally been fairly solid at the back, the team have consistently struggled to find the net. This dearth of goals has largely been a result of last season’s top scorer Harold Preciado struggling to adjust to the CSL and the club not finding an effective replacement for Franck Ohandza, who moved on to Henan Jianye. During the summer transfer window Shenzhen sought to rectify the situation by bringing in strikers Dyego Sousa from Braga and John Mary from Meizhou Hakka. Since signing, the pair have been in good goal scoring form and could possibly provide Shenzhen with the firepower they need to beat the drop.
After a solid sixth place finish last time round, Hebei China Fortune are a surprise candidate for relegation this season. Their place amongst the relegation contenders is largely due to their disastrous start to the season. Hebei started the year with former Wales boss Chris Coleman at the helm. However after only taking five points from their first nine games and with the club sitting bottom of the league, Coleman was sacked and replaced caretaker manager Xie Feng.
While Xie hasn’t been able to completely turn around Hebei’s fortunes, the team’s results have significantly improved since he took over. Under Xie they have been able to pick up some important wins and now sit five points clear of the relegation zone with six games left to play. Hebei have looked particularly good at home losing just two games at the Langfang Stadium since Xie took over. While they have suffered heavy defeats in their past two matches and have a difficult run-in, they should still be able to find the necessary points to ensure their survival.
Shanghai Shenhua are another surprise relegation contender. Having been a permanent fixture in the Chinese top-flight since the league turned professional in the mid-nineties. Few expected to see them so close to the drop zone this late in the season. Shenhua are currently just five points above the relegation zone and face the real possibility of being relegated to the second-tier.
Shenhua’s season began with a disastrous four-nil defeat to city rivals Shanghai SIPG. This would prove to be an omen of things to come. As Shenhua have gone on to spend the entire year hovering around the relegation zone and have consistently struggled to put together a run of good results. Shenhua’s descent from mid-table respectability last season to relegation contenders this year has been shock to many, but when looking at the team’s problems it is not that surprising.
Shenhua have been dogged by rumours of internal strife and schisms within the squad. The biggest issue however has been the decline in the quality of players at the club. The team lost two key domestic players in the off-season with Li Jianbin and Qin Sheng both moving to Dalian Yifang. Shenhua then failed to bring in any suitable replacements for these two. Li Jianbin has been sorely missed at centre-back with Shenhua regularly struggling to find adequate personnel to fill the position. And Qin Sheng could have helped stabilize Shenhua’s at times lightweight midfield in some important matches.
Shanghai’s goalkeeping situation had steadily gotten worse over the past few years and this came to a head this season. The decline of Li Shuai was extremely noticeable last year and Shenhua should have looked to have brought in a replacement in the off-season. In the end they didn’t and Li’s confidence completely evaporated early on in the campaign. Since then Shenhua have been forced to use youngster Chen Zhao for the majority of games this season. And while he hasn’t performed too badly, the fact that Shenhua have put themselves in a position where they have needed to rely on a young keeper with almost no prior first-team experience is a clear sign of the malaise that has seeped into the club.
Despite all the doom and gloom, Shenhua’s situation could be worse. They are currently the best placed of the relegation battlers, being five points clear of the drop and with a game in hand. They’ve also been in decent form as of late, taking eleven points from their last six games. New signings Kim Shin-Wook and El Shaarawy have made an immediate impact, adding a much needed cutting edge to Shenhua’s attack. While Shenhua do face a somewhat tricky run-in, they should still be too good to go down.