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2021 Chinese Super League preview: Previews and predictions for all 16 CSL teams

Comprehensive profiles and analysis ahead of the upcoming Chinese Super League season.

The Chinese Super League returns after a turbulent off-season that saw an exodus of big name foreign players, a plethora of team name changes, last season’s champions Jiangsu slip out of existence and a number of other clubs struggle financially in an increasingly austere footballing landscape. 

Despite this challenging and unpredictable state of affairs, the league is certainly not in its death throes. And while the more constrained finances of most CSL teams this year has meant that we haven’t seen any blockbusters transfers this winter. There has still been plenty of moving and shaking in the transfer market as teams have looked to get their squads ready for the upcoming season.

Exactly what form this season will take remains to be seen and so far only the format for the first half of the league’s season has been confirmed. What we do know is that for the first fourteen rounds of matches the league will be split into two separate bubbles, with one half of the league playing their matches in Suzhou and the other half playing in Guangzhou. What happens after this should become clearer later on in the year. It’s also worth noting that there will be no direct relegation from the CSL this year due to the upcoming expansion of the league in 2021. And teams finishing in the drop zone will instead face a relegation play-off against the third and fourth-place finishers in China League One.

Yes, following Chinese football is never simple but with the league in the thick of its most tumultuous period in over a decade it should be as entertaining as ever. So now let’s dive in and take a look at the teams making up the 2021 edition of the Chinese Super League.

Beijing Guoan

The Imperial Guards never really hit their stride last year and were ultimately eliminated in the semi-finals of the championship stage.

The main cause of Beijing’s mediocre showing last time round was a leaky defence which shipped far too many goals for a team wishing to seriously challenge for the title.

And whilst Guoan haven’t brought in any new players this winter to resolve their defensive issues, the arrival of new manager Slaven Bilic should help to shore things up at the back. With Bilic’s team’s usually being defensively compact and well organised.

That being said it’s unlikely that Beijing are going to improve enough overall as a team to launch a serious title challenge this year mainly due to their failure to significantly improve their squad in this winter’s transfer market. And whilst they haven’t lost any key players (with exception of Renato Augusto who is currently unable to enter the country due to Covid restrictions), they’ve essentially stood still and could suffer as a result.

Prediction: 4th – Another disappointing year for the boys from the capital.

Cangzhou Mighty Lions

What a difference five-months make. At the end of last season, the Hebei based club were Shijiazhuang Everbright and were due to go down after losing out in the relegation stage of last season. But now after a re-location to Cangzhou, they have re-branded themselves as the Cangzhou Mighty Lions and have managed to retain their CSL status due the demise of Jiangsu this winter.

There is a strange sort of justice in Cangzhou’s survival, as they didn’t play that badly for most of last year. And were to a large extent the victim of an unusual league system which was particularly harsh on teams who hit a poor run of form towards the end of the season.

Cangzhou should do a lot better this year. Their relocation has brought in investment from the local city government and as a result they have been extremely active in the transfer market. Cangzhou’s marquee signing this winter is Norwegian international Adama Diomande. The thirty-one year old striker had previously been banging in goals for Los Angeles FC in the MLS and should be an ideal fit for a Cangzhou side who were without a regular goalscorer last year.

Other big singings for Cangzhou this winter have been full-back Abduhamit Abdugheni and wingers Xie Pengfe and Luo Jing. All three were regulars in Jiangsu’s title winning team last season and became available as free agents after the club’s demise. Cangzhou have been unbelievably fortunate that players of this calibre were available on a free at a time when they were rebuilding, and they should help make the Mighty Lions a lot more competitive in the upcoming season.

Prediction: 11th – Cangzhou should steer clear of the drop with a vastly improved squad.

Changchun Yatai

Changchun Yatai return to the Chinese Super League in 2021, after a two year absence. Tan Long’s goals fired Yatai to promotion last year. However the club’s decision to bring in a wealth of foreign attacking talent this off-season, suggests that they are not expecting him to perform at the same level this year in the CSL

Chen Yang’s decision to focus on strengthening Changchun’s attacking options seems a wise one, given how solid Yatai were defensively last year, with the north eastern team conceding just seven times in a fifteen game season.

Of the players that Changchun have brought in this year, the one to watch will be Junior Negrao. The thirty-four year old Brazilian has been one of the most prolific goal scorers in East Asia over the past few years and could prove to be one of the signings of the season.

Prediction: 9th – A solid back four and plenty of firepower going forward should ensure an impressive first season for the leagues only newly promoted side.

Chongqing Liangjiang Athletic

Chongqing will be looking for a repeat of last season’s success, where a third-place finish in Group B made them one of the surprise qualifiers for the championship stage.

Chang Woe-ryon’s side will definately have their work cut out if they want to replicate last year’s success with four regulars from last season’s campaign not at the club for the coming year.

Most notable amongst these departures is attacking-midfielder Adrian Mierzejewski, who has joined Shanghai Shenhua on loan. Mierzejewski is one of CSL’s the top players in his position and was without a doubt Chongqing’s best player last year.

He will undoubtedly be missed this season, however Chongqing have brought in a fantastic replacement for him in Miler Bolanos.

Bolanos has spent almost his entire career in Latin America, but had a brief spell with Shenhua during the championship stage of last season and looked superb, notably netting twice for Shenhua in a 3-1 win over Chongqing. If Chongqing are to have another impressive year this season, Bolanos will most likely be a key part of it.

Prediction: 10th – Will miss some key players from last year but should still manage to finish around the middle of the table.

Dalian Pro

Dalian were underwhelming last year, doing just enough to stave off-relegation in what proved to be Rafa Benitez’s final season in charge of the club. The Spaniard became increasingly disillusioned with the job last year before resigning this January. And he has since been replaced by compatriot Jose Gonzalez, whose disastrous spell with Wuhan last season suggests that things will only get worse for Dalian this year.

Pro’s off-season has further added to this sense of gloom. With a midfield dynamo Marek Hamsik returning to Europe and last season’s top scorer Salomon Rondon going out on loan to CSKA Moscow. 

Dalian do still have a reasonably talented young squad. But a poor choice of manager and a severe lack of attacking options could well spell trouble for the Liaoning club. Pro’s chances of avoiding the relegation play-offs may well end up depending on whether pacey Ghanaian striker Emmanuel Boateng can hit a decent run of form and provide the goals needed to keep Dalian out of danger.

Prediction: 14th – Dalian are in for a rough ride this year but may have enough quality to avoid the relegation play-offs.

Guangzhou

2020 was an unaccustomed miss for the juggernaut from Guangdong. And in 2020 they return with a team that is once again brimming talent. Their squad is largely unchanged from last year, where they dominated the regular season, before ultimately losing to Jiangsu, in a shock upset in the final of the championship stage.

Guangzhou will begin the season without Brazilians Paulinho and Talisca (both are currently unable to re-enter China due to Covid restrictions) but still have an a fanatastic array attacking talent at their disposal. And with Jiangsu now out of the picture, Guangzhou will be overwhelming favourites to regain the title this year. This will be all the more likely if the CSL goes with a traditional league format in the second half of the season, instead of the play-off system used last year, as this will remove the possibility of Guangzhou again becoming unstuck by a single surprise result.

Prediction: 1st – Will anyone be able to stop Guangzhou this year? Probably not. 

Guangzhou City

Guangzhou City have been one of the worst teams defensively in the CSL for a number of years now and have generally relied on simply outscoring their opposition.

In the past talismanic forward Eran Zahavi was usually able to rattle in enough goals to keep City out of the relegation mix. With Zahavi and his partner in crime Dia Saba now having left the club however, things may begin to change.

New manager Jean-Paul van Gastel has brought in Swedish international Gustav Svensson as his big signing this off-season. The 34 year old defensive midfielder is expected to provide much needed protection to City’s beleaguered back-line. And his signing suggests that the team will be playing a much more conservative brand of football than they have over the past few years.

That’s not to say that City will be boring to watch this year though. The club has also made a number of exciting budget signings this off-season, bringing in South American playmakers Guilherme and Jown Cardona as well as former Bejing Renhe striker Tiago Leonço.  While none of these are likely to light up the league in the way Zahavi did, they will help to make City one of the more exiting teams to watch in the Chinese Super League and should give them enough firepower to avoid being drawn into the relegation play-offs.

Prediction: 13th – Thrill, spills and a non-descript bottom half of the table finish.

Hebei

Hebei had a surprisingly decent season in 2020, sneaking into the championship stage after a late season collapse from Wuhan in Group B.

This year they will have a new manager at the helm, with veteran Korean coach Kim Jong-boo taking the reigns. And while they may feel optimistic about their chances this season, their efforts will be severely hampered by the loss of several key attacking players this winter with Ricardo Goulart returning to Guangzhou and Mohamed Buya Turay moving onto Henan.

That being said, Hebei still have a fairly strong squad, containing a solid mix of youth and experience. And with Marcao and Paulinho both back for the coming season, they should still have enough attacking flair going forward to sneak in a top half finish.

Prediction: 7th – Will miss departing foreign stars, but a talented core of domestic players should help propel them to a respectable finish.

Henan Songshan Longmen

Henan were abysmal for most of last season and were very fortunate to have Spanish coach Javier Pereira take over just before the relegation stage.

Pereira turned Henan’s season around with the Red Devils going onto win all three of their ties in the final stage of the season. And while he undoubtedly deserves huge plaudits for orchestrating this massive turnaround, another less obvious hero for Henan last year was Toni Sunjic. The highly experienced Croatian was a transformative force at the back. Turning Henan into a solid defensive unit after it had been a shambles for most of the season.

This winter Henan have wisely signed Sunjic on permanent basis and have furthered bolstered their defence with the signing of full-back Dilmurat Mawlanniyaz. Never being one of the CSL’s big spenders, Henan haven’t been heavily hit by salary cap. With Christian Bassogog being Henan’s only foreign attacking player to leave the club during the winter. And he has been adequately replaced by new signing Buya Turay.

With Pereira in charge Henan should stay out of the relegation mix this year, and could possibly pull off a few surprises along the way.

Prediction: 12th – A significant improvement, after the horror show that was much of last season.

Qingdao

Qingdao started off decently enough last season, before hitting a downward spiral that almost saw them relegated. This year they are sticking with last season’s manager Wu Jingui and worryingly haven’t made any major improvements to their playing personnel this winter.  

Their one big signing this winter is Norwegian defensive midfielder Fredrik Ulvestad who will replace Joseph Marie Minala who has returned to Lazio after a season long loan. But other than that Qingdao have stagnated and may the pay the price when the new season begins.

Prediction: 15th – Will likely to finish near the bottom of the table but could win a relegation play-off and avoid the drop.

Shandong Taishan

Shandong Taishan are a strong physical team with a squad that includes a lot of players who have been with the club for a long time. They have been one of the Chinese Super League’s most consistent sides over the past few years and are usually up there challenging for Asian Champions League qualification.

This season they may start off slowly, with Brazilians Rodger Guedes and Moises currently unable to enter the country. But when these two do eventually return, Shandong should really kick into gear.

Their team has been substantially upgraded from last year. With manager Hao Wei bringing in the highly rated Chinese centre-back Shi Ke and 2020 K League 1 MVP Son Jun-ho. If they are able to get back Guedes and Moises for at least the later stages of the season, Taishan should be real contenders for Asian Champions League qualification.

Prediction: 3rd – New signings could give Shandong the edge over Beijing in the race for an ACL place.

Shanghai Shenhua

Shenhua come into the season as one of the few teams who managed to avoid having to change their name during this winter’s team names furore. And this year will be looking to build on the back of last season’s success, where they were a surprise qualifier for the championship stage. 

Shenhua made some very solid signings with regards to foreign players this off-season. However club has also engaged in a very questionable transfer strategy when it came to domestic players, focusing on signing ageing veterans such as Feng Xiaoting and Wu Xi to a squad that was already one of the oldest in the league. Shenhua should be able to get some decent production out these new domestic players in 2021. But looking further ahead into the future things don’t look too rosy for the Flower of Shanghai.

Prediction: 6th – A decent top half finish which will serve to mask the fact that this is a squad which is rapidly approaching its expiry date. 

Shanghai Port

Unlike their inter-city rivals Shenhua, the red side of Shanghai did not come through the off-season with their name intact. They did however controversially get away with only having to make a minor alteration to it and come into the new season as Shanghai Port FC.

Now over two years on from their 2018 title win, Shanghai Port are a shadow of the team that lifted the CSL trophy that year. Port have regressed again this off-season with club legend Hulk returning Brazil and defensive stalwart Shi Ke moving to Shandong Taishan.

On a brighter note though Port have looked good in pre-season and notched a surprise 5-0 win against Shandong. While they are unlikely to seriously challenge for the title, they still have more than enough quality players in their side to comfortably secure an AFC Champions League spot.

Prediction: 2nd – The best of the rest.

Shenzhen

Currently one of the most ambitious teams in the Chinese Super League, Shenzhen have invested heavily in developing their squad since returning to the top flight in 2019. They were one the league’s few big spenders this off-season, splashing the cash to bring in Columbian attacking talent Juan Fernando Quintero, CSL goal machine Alan Kardec and talented young Chinese defender Yuan Mincheng. Whilst also signing Ghanaian duo Muburak Wakaso and Frank Acheampong on frees.

Last year Shenzhen struggled early on, but hit a decent run of form in the latter part of the season when Jordi Cruyff took over as manager. Cruyff has a strong track record in China having previously had a very successful stint with Chongqing. With him at the helm of a significantly improved squad, Shenzhen could emerge as one the CSL’s real surprise packages this season.

Prediction: 5th – 2021’s big spenders should see their investments pay dividends this year.

Tianjin Jinmen Tigers

Tianjin came very close to going under this winter after long time backers Tianjin TEDA Co. pulled their investment in the club. Fortunately for Tianjin’s only remaining professional team, they were in the end able to secure enough investment to ensure that they could at least make it to the starting line of the upcoming season.

Tianjin’s off-season of wild uncertainty has taken its toll the though, with the team seeing an exodus of talent this winter. Going into 2021 they have a barebones squad, with major shortages of players in key positions. In short, they are in extremely bad shape and look like they could be one of the CSL’s worst teams in over a decade.  

Prediction: 16th – Bottom of the league and then beaten in the relegation play-offs by League One’s third-place team.

Wuhan

After a disappointing showing in 2020, Wuhan pulled of something of a coup by recruiting the highly rated Li Xiaopeng to take over as manager ahead of the upcoming season.

Since taking over Li has been busy in the transfer market, off-loading the squad’s deadwood and bringing in a lot of loan signings and free transfers.

Wuhan now look in much better shape defensively. With Li signing defensive midfielder Stephane Mbia who previously had a successful spell with Wuhan in 2019 and centre-back Yang Boyu who was a regular last year in Jiangsu’s title winning team.

It will be interesting to see how Wuhan’s attack lines up next year. Everand Kouassi will be the team’s primary threat going forward, but beyond him nobody’s place is assured. For the past two seasons Wuhan have given Brazilian striker Leo Baptistao plenty of playing time, but he’s never really produced the goods. And now that he and Rafael Silva are currently in Brazil and unable to enter China there could be big opportunities for Dong Xuesheng and new signing Yoann Arquin.

Prediction: 8th – With Li Xiaopeng in charge, we can expect Wuhan to be a completely different team from last year.

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