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 By Chris Atkins

Hebei China Fortune now have pieces to contend for AFC Champions League

Ahead of his first full season in China, Manuel Pellegrini is building a real contender at Hebei China Fortune.

The coverage of Juventus midfielder Hernanes's arrival at Hebei China Fortune this week has felt somewhat low key compared to some of the CSL's transfer activity in recent months. Yet, the 31-year-old Brazil international's capture completes what has been a remarkably successful window for Manuel Pellegrini's side.

Hebei finished a disappointing seventh in 2016, crumbling in the second half of a campaign which saw Li Tie handed his notice and former Manchester City coach Pellegrini arrive in Qinhuangdao. For a first crack at the CSL it was a good effort, but the season threatened so much more after an opening 15 games which saw the side flying high in second.

Highly ambitious, as shown by 2016's captures of Gervinho and Ezequiel Lavezzi, Hebei are now looking strong for a crack at the top three and AFC Champions League qualification this season. In a difficult and hyper-inflated market, they acted more decisively than any of their rivals to secure strong Chinese reinforcements for the first-team.

China national team centre-back Ren Hang has come in from rivals Jiangsu Suning to shore up the defensive line, with former Rayo Vallecano right-back Zhang Chengdong also set to line up in the back four. 

Goalkeeper Geng Xiaofeng, meanwhile, is an upgrade in goal following his arrival from Shanghai Shenhua.

In midfield, recently capped Yin Hongbo will offer dynamism alongside Hernanes following his move from Henan Jianye in January.

In comparison with the squad Pellegrini inherited six months ago, there has already been a major increase in the depth of Chinese talent and the Chilean believes the improvements will help his side rise up the table in 2017.

"We've been able to bring in some quality Chinese players. Last season, compared with the likes of Guangzhou [Evergrande] and Shanghai [SIPG], the major difference was in terms of local players," he told Sohu Sports.

"We've been working to improve the ability of our Chinese players, they have a key role. We need to keep looking to improve our squad and I'm delighted by the players we've brought in."

Hebei are also one of the sides least affected by recent rule changes with 1994-born Liao Junjian set to occupy their Under-23 player starting quota for much of the season. A versatile defender, Liao started 28 games in 2016 and is perhaps the most experienced of his age group in China.

Winger Gui Hong (1995) also boasts first-team experience. Compared to many of their top-half rivals, Hebei are in a strong position with regards to making a fast adaptation to the changes.

The addition of Hernanes completes a terrific offseason as Hebei China Fortune eye an AFC Champions League spot.

Pellegrini's results in the second half of the season were poor, but the Chilean was under no pressure to bring immediate success. After arriving in August, the focus quickly shifted to the 2017 campaign and there has been plentiful resources at his disposal to spend since -- Hernanes reportedly set to earn €10 million a year in North China.

"The competition at Hebei China Fortune is intense," defender Ren Hang told journalists when joining up with the China national team on Friday. "Everybody is hoping to earn a place in the team.

"I hope that I am able to show my true level, earn a starting place and help Hebei to qualify for the AFC Champions League."

Champions League qualification is the next logical step in the club's development and given the extensive outlay of the past 18 months, should be the minimum requirement this campaign. Anything less and Pellegrini's relatively unquestioned progress thus far will quickly come under scrutiny.

But there is a real feeling -- especially after the recent alterations in matchday rules -- that Hebei should be aiming to be Guangzhou Evergrande's closest rival this campaign. Having strengthened so considerably, as well as retaining their high-profile foreign players, they should be as well placed as any side to go the course over the 30-game campaign.

As a club, they may have captured headlines for their excesses in the transfer market but have also quietly invested considerably in a top class youth academy and training facilities.

There is clearly much which still needs to be upgraded off the pitch in Qinhuangdao, but there is real will from the club's leadership to build an elite football club and Pellegrini's input has been sought in a number of areas. As a project, the vision is impressive but success cannot simply be a long-term aim.

Facing just one of last season's top half in their first five games, there is now a real opportunity to once again make a fast start and carry all this positive momentum into the new campaign. 

With a vastly experienced manager in place and a squad to rival any in the division, it looks set be a year to remember for one of China's emerging football powerhouses.

Chris Atkins is based in China and writes for ESPN FC about the Chinese Super League. You can follow him on Twitter @ChrisAtkins_.


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