After a transfer window that saw Chinese clubs spend around €388 million on new recruits, the serious business of the 2017 Chinese Super League (CSL) season begins on Friday evening when Guizhou Zhicheng host Liaoning Whowin ahead of a full slate of games over the weekend.
Guangzhou Evergrande kick off the defence of their sixth straight title against Beijing Guoan on Sunday, while a day before big-spending Shanghai SIPG host Changchun Yatai and Carlos Tevez makes his bow for Shanghai Shenhua against last season’s runners up, Jiangsu Suning.
ESPN FC takes a look at all 16 teams ahead of the biggest season even in CSL history.
Last season: Champions
Head coach: Luiz Felipe Scolari (Brazil)
Key signing: Kim Hyung-Il (South Korea)
Key Player: Zheng Zhi
Guangzhou Evergrande claimed a record-extending sixth title in a row last season and Luiz Felipe Scolari has made few changes to the all-conquering squad that claimed the league and cup double. Continuity will be the key, with last season’s leading scorer Ricardo Goulart still at the club, as the team from southern China aim to continue their dominance.
Last season: 2nd
Head coach: Choi Yong-Soo (South Korea)
Key signing: Yang Boyu
Key Player: Alex Teixeira (Brazil)
Choi Yong-Soo joined Jiangsu Suning after a successful run at FC Seoul midway through last season as the long-term replacement for Dan Petrescu and the South Korean has done little to alter the make-up of his squad after finishing runners-up to Guangzhou Evergrande in both the league and the Chinese FA Cup. After going so close, Jiangsu will be hoping to go one step further in one of the competitions this season.
Last season: 3rd
Head coach: Andre Villas-Boas (Portugal)
Key signing: Oscar (Brazil)
Key Player: Hulk (Brazil)
A third place finish was not enough to keep Sven-Goran Eriksson in his job at the end of last season with the Swede making way for Andre Villas-Boas, who was handed big-money purchase Oscar to boost his already talented squad. A total outlay over the last 15 months of almost €140m means a trophy is expected by the club’s hierarchy at the end of the season.
Last season: 4th
Head coach: Gustavo Poyet (Uruguay)
Key signing: Carlos Tevez (Argentina)
Key Player: Giovanni Moreno (Colombia)
While Carlos Tevez’s signing captured the headlines and Gustavo Poyet has taken the flak after Shanghai Shenhua missed out on the group stages of the Asian Champions League, the club has recruited poorly — with no domestic players of note joining the club — and the pressure will be on a weak squad to match last season’s fourth place finish.
Last season: 5th
Head coach: Jose Gonzalez (Spain)
Key signing: Jonathan Soriano (Spain)
Key Player: Zhang Xizhe
Beijing Guoan’s new owners went back to go forward: hiring Jose Gonzalez to take over as the Spaniard returned to the club where he had previously served as Gregorio Manzano’s assistant. Jonathan Soriano has been signed to score goals on the recommendation of former striker Freddie Kanoute, while veteran defender Xu Yunlong has retired.
Last season: 6th
Head coach: Dragan Stojkovic (Serbia)
Key signing: Junior Urso (Brazil)
Key Player: Eran Zahavi (Israel)
Eran Zahavi was one of the players of last season in the Chinese Super league and Dragan Stojkovic will be looking to the Israeli to deliver once again as Guangzhou R&F attempt to step out of their neighbours’ shadow and challenge for a place in the Asian Champions League.
Hebei China Fortune
Last season: 7th
Head coach: Manuel Pellegrini (Chile)
Key signing: Zhang Chengdong
Key Player: Ezequiel Lavezzi (Argentina)
Perhaps the savviest club in the transfer market, Hebei China Fortune brought in seven players with China national team experience as part of an overhaul worth around $100m. The most eye-catching was central defender Zhang Chengdong, who returned to China after a season in Spain for a record transfer fee. Manuel Pellegrini’s squad — also featuring Ezequiel Lavezzi, Hernanes and Stephane Mbia — should be a serious threat in the battle for the title.
Last season: 8th
Head coach: Chang Woe-Ryong (South Korea)
Key signing: Hyuri (Brazil)
Key Player: Alan Kardec (Brazil)
Chongqing Lifan consolidated their position in the CSL with an eighth-place finish last season, their second in a row in that position since sealing a return to the top flight at the end of 2014. Vastly experienced South Korean coach Chang Woe-Ryong has added Hyuri to his squad, with the Brazilian returning to China after an earlier stint with Guizhou Renhe.
Last season: 9th
Head coach: Park Tae-Ha (South Korea)
Key signing: Richard Guzmics (Hungary)
Key Player: Bubacarr Trawally (Gambia)
A disappointing start to last season saw Yanbian Funde sit in 15th place after seven rounds of matches, South Korean coach Park Tae-Ha did well to keep the club in the top flight following their promotion from China League One. The year will be another demanding one for the club given the minimal investment made in the squad compared to others in the division.
Last season: 10th
Head coach: Jaime Pacheco (Portugal)
Key signing: John Obi Mikel (Nigeria)
Key Player: Cao Yang
Former Beijing Guoan coach Jaime Pacheco starts his first full season at the helm of Tianjin Teda leading a squad that has undergone a significant overhaul during the transfer window, with John Obi Mikel joining from Chelsea as well as former West Bromich Albion forward Brown Ideye. Key to the season will be ensuring they finish above newly promoted local rivals Tianjin Quanjian.
Last season: 11th
Head coach: Ma Lin
Key signing: Yang Xu
Key Player: Robbie Kruse
Coached by club legend Ma Lin — who won the Asian Club Championship as a player with Liaoning back in 1990 — Liaoning’s biggest coup was convincing Shandong Luneng to part with China international striker Yang Xu. The arrival of Australian duo Robbie Kruse and James Holland will also give the team a boost, but restoring former glories will likely be beyond them.
Last season: 12th
Head coach: Lee Jang-soo (South Korea)
Key signing: Odion Ighalo (Nigeria)
Key Player: Zhang Xiaofei
Coach Lee Jang-Soo is the only man currently working in the Chinese Super League other than Scolari to have won the title when he steered Guangzhou Evergrande to their first domestic crown in 2011 and the well-travelled South Korean will be seeking to ensure he maintains Changchun’s top tier status this year. A goal scoring start from new signing Odion Ighalo would be a major help in that quest.
Last season: 13th
Head coach: Jia Xiuquan
Key signing: Christian Bassogog (Senegal)
Key Player: Edigeison Gomes (Denmark)
Henan Jianye have added Senegal’s Christian Bassogog, the Most Valuable Player at the most recent edition of the African Nations Cup, to a settled squad that has established itself in the CSL, although a repeat of their fifth place finish in 2015 looks a long way off for the Zhengzhou-based club.
Last season: 14th
Head coach: Felix Magath (Germany)
Key signing: Zhao Haibin
Key Player: Graziano Pelle (Italy)
Shandong Luneng signed Graziano Pelle from Southampton last summer in what looked to be a shrewd move, but with the club allowing a number of Chinese players to leave in January and February — including national team striker Yang Xu — coach Felix Magath will be expected to deliver while relying heavily on the club’s academy. Shandong narrowly avoided relegation last season and this year could be another difficult year.
Last season: Champions China League One
Head coach: Fabio Cannavaro (Italy)
Key signing: Axel Witsel (Belgium)
Key Player: Zhao Xuri
The deep pockets of owner Shu Yuhui delivered promotion to the Chinese Super League for Tianjin Quanjian as Fabio Cannavaro’s side won China League One before embarking on a spree that has seen Tianjin bring in Axel Witsel, Alexandre Pato and Junior Moraes. Cannavaro will be keen to prove Guangzhou Evergrande were too hasty in firing him after six months in 2015, while Tianjin will hope to challenge for an Asian Champions League spot.
Last season: 2nd, China League One
Head coach: Li Bing
Key signing: Tjarron Chery (Netherlands)
Key Player: Nikica Jelavic
Led by former China under-20 coach Li Bing, Guizhou Zhicheng joined Tianjin Quanjian in gaining promotion from China League One, finishing above Qingdao Huanghai to secure a place in the top flight for the first time. One of a number of clubs owned by a property development company, Guizhou have recruited former Rangers and Everton forward Nikica Jelavic and Dutchman Tjarron Chery from Queens Park Rangers.
Michael Church has written about Asian football for more than 20 years and mainly covers the Chinese game for ESPN FC. Twitter: @michaelrgchurch