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Chinese football looks for Rio Olympics' redemption in 2016

Guangzhou Evergrande won the 2015 AFC Champions League for their second title in three years.

Over the last 12 months, the profile of Chinese football has continued to rise as greater amounts of investment find their way into the sport thanks, largely, to the spotlight shone onto the game by president Xi Jinpeng.

But while the money has flowed in and the number of foreign players in the Chinese Super League has increased, the national team remains the sick man of Asian football, even as Guangzhou Evergrande claimed a second continental club title in three seasons.

Fans have had little to celebrate since the early part of the millennium, when they qualified for the 2002 World Cup and finished as runners-up in the Asian Cup two years later on home soil.

Here are five wishes for Chinese football in 2016.

Frenchman Alain Perrin has had a mixed time as China's head coach.

1. Complete overhaul of the national team

Where to start with the China national team? There was a sense during the 2015 Asian Cup in Australia that the corner might have been turned when Alain Perrin guided his team to the quarterfinals, despite having only scraped through to the knockout stages as the last qualifier.

Solid performances in the preliminary stages saw Zheng Zhi & Co. win their group before exiting at the hands of a Tim Cahill-inspired Socceroos in Brisbane. The showing allowed some cautious optimism to emerge but, as any long-time watcher of Team China will know only too well, the Chinese rarely reward such confidence, and soon any positivity had evaporated.

Little more than a year later, China now stand on the verge of being eliminated from qualifying for Russia 2018 ahead of the final round of qualifying for the fourth tournament in a row. Indeed, China have not reached Asia's final round of qualifying for the World Cup since their one, and so-far only, appearance in the finals in South Korea in 2002.

Perrin's team must win against Qatar and Bangladesh in March and hope Hong Kong slip up against the Qataris while also hoping they are able to finish as one of the four best runners-up in the group stages. For a nation of China's resources, there are too many variables as the country continues to punch woefully below its weight.

The problems that dog the national team are numerous and will not be amended overnight, or even over the course of a year. But the hope has to be that -- whether China make it through to the final phase of qualifying for Russia or not -- that steps are taken at all levels to do something to finally turn the national team around.

2. A more competitive Chinese Super League

The season just concluded was one of the most entertaining in the Chinese Super League (CSL) for a number of years, with Guangzhou Evergrande pushed to the final round of matches before clinching a fifth successive domestic crown.

And while Shanghai SIPG, under the command of Sven Goran Eriksson, will feel disappointed to have only taken the runners-up position, there's a growing sense that they -- and others -- still need to take another step up to challenge Guangzhou's position of dominance.

While Guangzhou's win was the tightest of their five in a row, it was achieved after a disappointing start to the season under Fabio Cannavaro while also juggling the club's commitments in the AFC Champions League. That they still won shows that, on any given day, they are comfortably the best team in China with Luiz Felipe Scolari's arrival in June galvanizing the club further.

With significant money continuing to flow into the game, the resources are available at an increasing number of clubs to not only bring in the best foreign talent but to also ensure the leading domestic players stay within Chinese football.

Closing the gap on Guangzhou is proving difficult, but for the good of the league it might be time for someone else to claim the major silverware at the end of 2016.

Guangzhou Evergrande fans have seen AFC success, but what about other Chinese clubs?

3. Better performances in the AFC Champions League

While Guangzhou Evergrande claimed a second Asian title in three seasons in November, the performances of Chinese sides in the AFC Champions League have been far from convincing in recent years.

Beijing Guoan reached the round of 16 before slipping up against South Korea's Jeonbuk Motors while Guangzhou R&F and Shandong Luneng both exited at the group stage, leaving Evergrande to fly the flag in the latter stages once again.

Take Evergrande's performances out of the equation for the last four years, and the story for Chinese football is not a positive one: There have been only two round of 16 appearances [both for Beijing Guoan] over that period. While Guangzhou claim the headlines, other teams need to step up.

4. Qualification for the Olympic Games

With the senior national team in the doldrums -- again -- one way to lift the spirits of the beleaguered Chinese football fan would be to see the country's under-23 side advance to the Olympic Games' football tournament in Rio de Janeiro.

China have qualified for January's AFC Under-23 Championship in Qatar, which will act as the continent's final eliminator for August's Olympics. China will be aiming to play at the tournament for only the fifth time in the country's history.

The Chinese last appeared at the Olympics in 2008 -- qualifying as hosts -- and have never advanced through the continent's qualifying campaign for the finals since the under-23 age limit was introduced in 1992.

A solid performance in the 2014 AFC U20 Championship in Myanmar -- where they were eliminated in the quarterfinals by eventual champions Qatar -- gives some hope. But having been drawn to meet Qatar, Syria and Iran in the group phase, the task will not be easy.

More players like Zhang Linpeng have to come to the fore if China are to progress in 2016.

5. Improved development

The problems within Chinese football are numerous and there can be no quick fix. But the hope has to be that 2016 will see more of the developmental pieces put in place to ensure the game goes forward.

Moves by the government to introduce the game into the national curriculum and an increased appetite from clubs and state federations to work at grassroots level should inevitably lead to the broadening of the playing base, which will surely improve playing standards.

But in a country now accustomed to rapid growth and being in a position of global influence, there will be a need to be an understanding that results do not come in the sporting arena without laying down the correct foundations. Continued patience will be the key.

Michael Church has written about Asian football for more than 20 years and mainly covers the Chinese game for ESPN FC. Twitter: @michaelrgchurch


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