By Sportswriter Yao Youming and Zhu Hong
XI'AN, Dec. 1 (Xinhua) -- Guangzhou Evergrande snatched its eighth Chinese Super League (CSL) title in nine seasons on Sunday, relieving its fans' sadness about losing in the semifinal in the AFC Champions League.
With the team failing to become the best team in Asia, some disappointed Chinese soccer fans say that the CSL is no longer the sixth-best soccer league in the world.
Guangzhou Evergrande was back to the highest podium in China, while the team's former head coach Marcello Lippi ended his second coaching stint in China's national team. How can China improve the national team's performances by redesigning the league's rules? At the year-end, the CSL is at a crossroads.
THE ROAD TO RECLAIM THE CROWN
At the beginning of the 2019 season, the league defending champions Shanghai SIPG allowed two of its best players Wu Lei and Elkeson de Oliveira Cardoso to leave, although the club failed to grab any trophy in the year except the CFA Super Cup, the club won kudos and the respects of many Chinese football fans.
Under the lead of Fabio Cannavaro, Guangzhou Evergrande won the CSL for the first time since 2018. Some veterans in the team, such as Zheng Zhi, Li Xuepeng and Feng Xiaoting, suffered injuries or fatigue, while Cannavaro gave many chances to younger players such as Wei Shihao, Yang Liyu, Zhong Yihao, enabling the CSL powerhouses to build a younger squad. The squad had a mixture of energy and experience, helping the team dominate the upper hand when facing against its powerful rivals.
Guangzhou Evergrande won six of seven games at the beginning of the season's CSL, keeping an unbeaten record between the ninth round and the 23rd round. Then the team had a struggling period, pocketing four points in just four games. Before a break, the club announced 39-year-old skipper Zheng Zhi would take temporary charge while Cannavaro attended "corporate culture training."
At last, the former Ballon d'Or winner returned to the club as head coach, after the Italian handed a written self-reflection report to the club investor Xu Jiayin.
In the 28th round, Guangzhou Evergrande defeated Shanghai SIPG 2-0, just one step away from the highest place of the league podium. In the last round, the elite team edged Shanghai Shenhua 3-0. Compared with the runners-up Beijing Guo'an, Guangzhou Evergrande had a two-point advantage.
Beijing Guo'an, another CSL title favorite, were the half-season bellwether. But the team didn't have enough reserve players when its key players suffered injuries in the second half of the league. When facing against Guangzhou Evergrande and Shanghai SIPG, China's capital team suffered three defeats in four games.
Guo'an sacked its head coach Roger Schmidt in July. It wasn't seen as a proper decision by many, although Schmidt's successor Bruno Genesio kept the team's hope of grabbing the trophy alive until the last round.
NIGHTMARES AND SWEET DREAMS
Shenzhen and Wuhan Zall, the two newly-promoters in the league, had two completely different fates in the season. Between the third round and the 21st round, Shenzhen only had one win. In the 29th round, although Shenzhen held onto a 3-3 draw with Henan Jianye, the result couldn't prevent the club's relegation.
"We don't have enough courage or experience on the field. That's why we couldn't stay in the CSL," Shenzhen's head coach Roberto Donadoni said.
Li Tie, a former Chinese international, brought many surprises to the central Chinese city of Wuhan. The 42-year-old coach asked his players to try their best to win the game, at home or away. With Li's encouragement, Wuhan Zall defeated Guangzhou Evergrande 1-0 in Guangzhou Tianhe Sports Center on Sept. 22.
When Wuhan took sixth place in the CSL, "the result is beyond my expectation." Li said.
Choi Kang-Hee, one of the most famous coaches in Asia, experienced a fantastic journey in the CSL.
The South Korean was named the new coach of Tianjin Quanjian in November 2018. In February 2019, the 59-year-old took charge of training at Dalian Yifang after Tianjin was mired in a management crisis.
During the CSL summer break, Choi left Dalian for Shanghai, leading Shanghai Shenhua to escape from relegation.
Former Champions League-winning head coach of Liverpool Rafael Benitez took over Choi's position in Dalian Yifang, however, the Spaniard didn't help Dalian have an ideal result in the league. In the 29th round, Dalian lost to Tianjin Tianhai (Tianjin Quanjian) 5-1, sparking Benitez's anger.
Benitez criticized his players that they didn't play hard enough when facing Tianhai. Tianhai kept staying in the division one league, a result beyond many expectations.
Wu Lei, the 2018 CSL's top goalscorer, joined Spanish La Liga side Espanyol in January 2019. With Wu's departure, no Chinese forward can compete with the non-Chinese players in the CSL top scorers list, except the naturalized Elkeson.
In April, Li Ke of Beijing Guo'an, whose English name is Nico Yennaris, became the first naturalized player to score in the CSL. Then Elkeson took Chinese citizenship, joining the Chinese national squad with Li Ke for the Asian qualifiers of the 2022 FIFA World Cup.
But the changes couldn't help China to any significant improvement when they performed modestly half into the schedule of the 40-team-round in the Asian qualifiers.
On Nov. 14, China were beaten by Syria 2-1 in the fifth round of Asian qualifiers, leaving them few chances to reach the last 10-team-preliminaries. Team China's head coach Marcello Lippi announced his resignation in that game's post-match press conference.
Shandong Luneng's head coach Li Xiaopeng along with Li Tie are expected to lead team China for the remaining qualifiers. While Luiz Felipe Scolari, who led Brazil to the 2002 World Cup title, is another candidate for the position.
In the Chinese division two, China League, many strong teams suffered consecutive defeats in the last few rounds. Some media and fans question whether these teams want to secure a CSL spot. With more reforms and adjustments of the CSL in sight to better protect the small or middle-scale clubs' interests, the league still needs to sort out how to better serve the development of Chinese football.