This was the season that Chinese football exploded on to the world’s consciousness, but on a regional level it is not the year that a new Super League team wins the AFC Champions League and keeps the trophy in China.
Last week in the quarter-finals the remaining Chinese teams bowed out as Sven Goran Eriksson’s Shanghai SIPG were humbled 5-0 in South Korea by Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors to exit after losing by the same scoreline on aggregate.
Back in China, Shandong Luneng held South Korea’s FC Seoul to a 1-1 draw, but went out 4-2 over the two legs.
Despite this being the “golden age of Chinese football” as claimed by new Hebei China Fortune FC manager Manuel Pellegrini, last year’s Champions League winners Guanghzou Evergrande did not even make it out of the group stage.
Both Shandong and Shanghai did well to go as far as they did – Shandong manager Felix Magath was not wrong in suggesting his side had “defended the honour of Chinese football” after their draw – but at the same time it was no surprise that either lost to K-League sides.
Watch: Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors 5 Shanghai SIPG 0
Realistically, if a Chinese club is going to win the continental title again then the candidates start and end with Guangzhou. And that’s going to continue to be the case until someone can break their stranglehold on the domestic title.
Even though they went after a run of just one point from three games, Guangzhou are six points clear at the top table with five games to go.
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Although, Jiangsu Suning creditably remain within touching distance in second place, the likelihood is that the reigning champions will wrap up this year’s title, their sixth in a row, well before the teams meet next month.
There has been huge investment in Chinese football over the last few years, but the fact is that Guangzhou did it first and have done it better.
Watch: Shandong Luneng 1 FC Seoul 1
Since the Evergrande group took over the club in 2010, when they had been relegated to League One as a result of a match-fixing scandal dating back to 2006, they have attracted the best Chinese players and made a habit of winning the league, starting with immediate promotion to the Super League as champions.
They’ve been run close a few times, but no matter what they have always ended up top of the table when it matters.
‘We defended Chinese honour’, Says Felix Magath as his Shandong Luneng side bow out of Champions League
Last year Shanghai took it down to the wire and Guangzhou won the league by two points, while the year before it was Beijing Guoan who were left heartbroken as they finished three points behind the champions.
Sometimes it’s been like Guangzhou are operating in a different league entirely. The year they came up from League One they won the Super League by 15 points and in 2013 they finished 18 points ahead of Shandong.
While Guangzhou have been the constant at the top, the teams challenging them have changed season on season. That it has been Shanghai, Beijing, Shandong, Jiangsu and Beijing again, over the last five seasons suggests an instability in the rest of the league, which is something that Guangzhou have seized upon.
Perhaps that will change over the next few years as the investment elsewhere solidifies, but recent history might suggest otherwise.
Immediate success is expected and that precipitates a rapid turnover of players and managers, meanwhile the champions plod on.
Frighteningly for the rest of the league, they can afford to let their best players go to other clubs.
Elkeson made the move from Guangzhou to Shanghai this January with the reason that the free scoring Brazilian was allowed to leave being to fire the Shanghai side to “national glory” by winning the Champions League. That didn’t happen but it remained business as usual in Guangzhou
Maybe the same thing will happen in the next window, Guangzhou letting a star player go to a rival, but you get the impression any such move won’t dent their own title chances.
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Even though they let Elkeson head north, the champions in waiting have scored the most and conceded the least goals in the league with their goal difference 14 better than second placed Jiangsu.
Both Magath and Pellegrini have spoken about their title aspirations for next season, but if this campaign and the previous five are anything to go by, they will have their work cut out to prise Chinese football’s biggest prize from Guangzhou’s grip.