There was drama at the bottom end of the table to find out who would join Shijiazhhuang Everbright in China League One next season and in a way that sums up the Chinese Super League, six teams went into the final round of fixtures on Sunday evening facing the prospect of relegation from the top flight.
In a division that has only 16 teams in it, that’s a remarkable statistic. After 29 games, just four points separated Henan Jianye, Shandong Luneng, Liaoning Whowin, Tianjin Teda, Changchun Yatai and Hangzhou Greentown.
Liaoning Whowin claimed a vital win against second-placed Jiangsu Sainty, Tianjin Teda won on the road at Chongqing Lifan and Changchun Yatai, who Hong Kong international Jack Sealy plays for, beat Shanghai Shenhua to secure safety.
Watch: highlights of Guangzhou Evergrande v Shandong Luneng
Not everyone had it their own way though. Henan Jianye were turned over by Beijing Guoan at the Workers’ Stadium, while Shandong Luneng were on the wrong end of a 4-0 thrashing at the hands of champions Guangzhou Evergrande meaning that a win for perennial escapologists Hangzhou Greentown would have brought goal difference into a play.
It wasn’t to be. Despite the last minute drama of a late goal it was an equaliser rather than a winner and Shandong Luneng could breathe a collective sigh of relief – their 4-0 win in the penultimate round would have kept them up anyway.
Hangzhou Greentown end a decade stint in the top flight and ,with Shijiazhuang Everbright, face the tough task of returning from a very competitive League One, where opportunities for investment could make it even more difficult.
The high drama on the final day, even if it was at the foot rather than the top of the table, was fitting for the end to the first season where the league has been broadcast by the high architects of football as drama, Sky Sports.
The world is watching and with average attendances at CSL games rising on last year’s figures it would appear that so are more local fans, even if that fact doesn’t sell papers. Clearly Chinese football is taking a step in the right direction, certainly at the domestic level.
Lots of money has been spent and some of it well. Hulk has been a hit, with his return from injury integral to Shanghai SIPG’s run of form which saw them overtake Shanghai Shenhua in the battle for the all-important third place, while his compatriot Alex Teixeira has been similarly important in guiding Jiangsu Suning to second.
Watch: highlights of Hangzhou Greentown v Yanbian Funde
It’s not all worked out, though. Shandong Luneng pair Papisse Cisse and Graziano Pelle both finished with a creditable five goals in 12 games but neither can be said to have set the world alight in Jinan. Ramires and Gervinho have similarly disappointed at Jiangsu and Hebei China Fortune FC respectively.
And then there is Jackson Martinez. He has struggled to play his way back into the team at Guangzhou Evergrande after injury and has made it clear that he is open to leave Guangdong in the winter transfer window.
He is unlikely to be the only big name exit as the chasing pack look for whatever gains they can make on Guangzhou Evergrande during the close season. Whether that’s in playing personnel – Jiangsu Suning have already made a statement dismissing reports that they are interested in buying Japan defender Yuto Nagamoto from Inter Milan – or in the dugout, making changes to improve for next season is on the cards.
Felix Magath and Manuel Pellegrini might both worry that they will be the target of such change. Magath kept Shandong Luneng up but only just, while Pellegrini has overseen a downward spiral in form at Hebei China Fortune FC since coming in midway through the season.
The CSL is a ruthless place, which is why rumours persist that Sven Goran-Eriksson may be replaced at Shanghai SIPG, even though he delivered Champions League football at Shanghai Stadium next season.
One place where there will not be a new man in the dugout is at the champions. Luiz Felipe Scolari has signed a deal to stay on next year and take a shot at matching Marcello Lippi’s three titles in a row.
It won’t all be the same down south, though. Scolari brought on Zhang Aokai during the 4-0 win over Shandong Luneng, with the 16-year-old academy graduate even sporting the captain’s arm band during his debut. A sign that at the end of a season of great change, the future is bright for Chinese football.