Millions of Chinese eyes will be watching Javier Masherano this weekend, as the new Chinese Super League season kicks off. The Argentine veteran's first match for Hebei China Fortune, who signed him from Barcelona, takes place this Saturday, when his team travels to Tianjin Teda.
The new season begins in earnest on Friday with the Guangzhou derby, when Fabio Cannavaro's reigning champions Evergrande host southern city rivals R&F. Some outside observers are asking, however, if Chinese football has lost some of its lustre: Carlos Tevez is back in Argentina after his disastrous year at Shanghai Shenhua and new rules means Chinese clubs have not splurged on foreign talent as in previous years.
While the spending may have slowed, world-renowned coaches such as Fabio Capello and Manuel Pellegrini all have the same objective this season – stopping Guangzhou Evergande from winning an eighth consecutive title.
There are signs Guangzhou may not be as dominant as in the past. The team has struggled to replace influential midfielder Paulinho, who left for Barcelona in August. In two 2018 Asian Champions League game so far, Guangzhou is the only one of four Chinese teams without a win, tying with Buriram United of Thailand and Cerezo Osaka of Japan.
"The desire to win titles is still there and it comes from the players," said Guangzhou coach Fabio Cannavaro. "Players have short careers and want to look at a cupboard full of medals. We are looking forward to a good season and worked hard in winter training."
While Guangzhou has a history of starting slowly, the Italian is under pressure in his second spell as coach at the club after being fired in June 2015 after just six months. The 2006 World Cup-winning captain was replaced by 2002 World Cup winning coach Luiz Felipe Scolari, who delivered three league titles and one Asian championship before leaving in November. After leading Tianjin Quanjian to third last season, Cannavaro has been given a second chance.
Shanghai SIPG finished second in 2017 and could be Guangzhou's closest challenger again. Much depends on star striker Hulk, who scored 26 goals in 2017, in his first full season after being signed for around US$60 million in the summer of 2016.
Shanghai also has a new coach after Andre Villas-Boas resigned to participate in the Dakar Rally with fellow Portuguese Vitor Pereira ready for the challenge of delivering Shanghai's first title. "We are on the right path and we are improving," said Pereira. "It is important that we have a good start."
Big name arrivals
The biggest arrival for the new season is Mascherano. The midfielder joined Hebei China Fortune from Barcelona for less than US$10 million to link up with fellow Argentine international Ezequiel Lavezzi. Under former Real Madrid coach Pellegrini, Hebei is also chasing a first title.
"We are looking to progress and improve all the time," said Pellegrini, who led Hebei to fourth in 2017, a best-ever finish. "I think we have strengthened in signing an experienced player like Javier."
With Tianjin Quanjian, which finished third last season with Brazilian star Alexandre Pato and Belgian international Axel Witsel in the mix as well as Beijing Guoan, Guangzhou could have a fierce fight to take their eighth title.
Competition may also strengthen given the considerable drop in 2018 transfer spending from the 2017 winter transfer window when Chinese teams splashed out more on players than any other league in the world.
Chinese authorities, concerned about the sums involved, intervened to apply a brake on the spending. During the 2017 season, the Chinese Football Association (CFA) introduced a 100-percent tax on the signings of foreign players for a fee of over US$7 million.
It is not just a desire to reduce the money being spent but to increase opportunities for young Chinese players. In 2017, the number of foreign players that could be selected for a game was reduced from four to three. In 2018, for every foreign player on the field, clubs have to select one Chinese player under the age of 23.
The biggest signing of the pre-season period in terms of financials was that of Cedric Bakambu from Villarreal in Spain to Beijing Guoan for around US$50 million. There were reports that Beijing used the money to free the player from his contract with his Spanish club to make the Congolese international a free agent in order to circumvent the 'transfer tax'. The CFA announced that it was closely watching any attempt to find a loophole.
Five talking points
The perception of Argentines
Chinese football fans could be forgiven for being sceptical about Hebei China Fortune's signing of Mascherano. The 33-year-old midfielder-turned-central defender's career has been closely intertwined with his fellow Argentine Tevez, who was dubbed "very homesick boy" by disgruntled Shanghai Shenhua fans last year. But Mascherano, the most eye-catching arrival in the winter transfer window, is no Tevez when it comes to attitude and could be smart business given the former Liverpool and Barcelona player's wealth of experience.
Bakambu worth the bother
Beijing Guoan's drawn-out pursuit of striker Cedric Bakambu from Villarreal looks like having repercussions throughout the Chinese Super League (CSL). The Chinese FA last year imposed a 100-percent transfer tax on incoming foreign players and Guoan appear to have attempted to circumvent that rule. The unamused Chinese FA will be determined not to let other teams follow suit. Amid all that, it's easy to forget that Bakambu is a prolific goalscorer who will find CSL defences significantly more generous than those in Spain's La Liga.
Big season for Cannavaro
Italian World Cup winner Fabio Cannavaro steered Tianjin Quanjian into the AFC Champions League last season before quitting to take over from Luiz Felipe Scolari at Guangzhou Evergrande, who have won the CSL for the last seven seasons. An eighth will be tough because Evergrande did not significantly strengthen in the close season. Early results for Cannavaro have been mixed, drawing twice in the Champions League, including a 1-1 home draw with Thailand's Buriram United. Evergrande did defeat Shenhua 4-1 in the Chinese Super Cup.
Can Pereira trump Villas-Boas?
Former Chelsea and Tottenham Hotspur manager Andre Villas-Boas went close in three competitions but failed to win a trophy in his turbulent in charge at Shanghai SIPG. He quit and was replaced by fellow Portuguese Vitor Pereira, last seen taking 1860 Munich down into Germany's third tier. With Hulk and Oscar, SIPG ought to be doing better – and scoring more goals – and at least one title this season is a minimum requirement for Pereira. Fans were underwhelmed by his appointment, but early indications are good, SIPG winning their qualifying round and both group matches so far in the AFC Champions League under their new boss.
Chinese FA get tough
As Villas-Boas discovered to his disdain, the Chinese FA are unpredictable. They imposed a swingeing transfer tax and rules limiting foreign players midway through last season and Villas-Boas was twice banned for minor indiscretions. Oscar was hit with a harsh eight-game punishment for starting a brawl, badly hurting SIPG's CSL title bid. The Chinese government is desperate to stop the big spending on overseas stars and instead promote local talent. It would be no surprise if the Chinese FA popped up with some new startling rules off the pitch and heavy punishments for players and coaches who misbehave on it.