Two Chinese national titles and a continental triumph within 17 months: this is the impressive record of Luis Felipe Scolari as head coach of Guangzhou Evergrande. As early as three rounds before the end of the recently concluded season the southern Chinese had ensured retaining their title. It was their sixth title in a row.
But despite that Scolari had been pushed aside. The Brazilian’s contract was not to be extended. Their early elimination in the Asian Champions League overshadowed the national triumph, and when reaching the final Cup matches against Jiangsu Suning at the end of November Scolari’s predecessor Marcello Lippi was poised to take over the team again. The contract with the Italian was already signed.
But Lippi was also wooed by the Chinese Association who are looking for a saviour for their stumbling national team. At the end club officials gave in to the pressure from Beijing and released Lippi. That brought an unexpected reprieve for Scolari. Both parties quickly agreed on an extension of his contract at Guangzhou until the end 0f 2017. The salary of the former World Cup champion coach might be well over ten million Euros per year.
However, Guangzhou must improve if they want to continue their domination in the Chinese Super League (CSL) next season. Many investors have discovered Chinese football as the marketing vehicle for their business interests, upgrading many provincial clubs with expensive stars. That’s also attracted rising attendance numbers. An average of 24,000 fans attended the 270 league matches, a total of around 5.5 million. “The standard of the league has clearly improved. There are now five, six clubs which will battle for the title in the next few years”, said Scolari. He sees strong competition ahead.
The sixth title in a row was positively served to Evergrande on a silver salver. Not even Jackson Martinez’s months-long injuries proved disastrous for the team. The Columbian international, who was transferred from Atletico Madrid for 40 million Euros and thus became the most expensive transfer in Chinese football for half a year, suffered two injuries during the season and never really settled in. The team experienced their best phase of the season when the enigmatic newcomer was not on the pitch. And there are already rumours that Martinez’s days with Guangzhou are numbered and he could be gone by next season.
The club profited from its competitors’ failings, with them stumbling repeatedly when Guangzhou were experiencing a rough patch. The top club failed to win three times in a row in August and conceded many points. Their closest pursuer, Jiangsu Suning, had a prime chance to close the gap to just four points but they lost at eventually relegated Hangzhou Greentown 3-0, and appeared to lose any belief in catching the flagging leaders.
Even the highly rated shooting stars of Hebei China Fortune, with newcomers Gervinho of AS Rome and Ezequiel Lavezzi of Paris St. Germain, failed to keep up. Thirty points from 14 matches were followed by just nine points from the next 14 encounters, not helped by Argentine Lavezzi leaving for the Copa America in the middle of the season.
Shanghai SIPG, another of the ambitious pursuers, worked themselves into the ground in the Champions League, while Guangzhou saved strength due to their early elimination. For the first time in years SIPG, coached by Sven-Goran Eriksson, reached the quarterfinals and had to deal with the double strain. They finished third in the league, but lacked the consistency to fulfil their title dream. However, since SIPG bought Brazilian international Hulk for 56 million Euros last summer, they finally hope to win the national championship.
The double challenge also possibly got to Shandong Luneng, the club of German coach Felix Magath. Unexpectedly they had to fight against relegation at the same time as reaching the quarterfinals of the Champions League. Among other things, Magath’s team had to play away in Sydney, travelling twelve hours by plane. The eastern Chinese ultimately owed their remaining in the first division on the last competitive day to the weak nerves of their competitors.