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Shanghai SIPG look to take over from Guangzhou at the top in China

Shanghai SIPG meet Guangzhou Evergrande on Saturday in the biggest game of the 2017 Chinese Super League (CSL) campaign so far.

Andre Villas-Boas' second-placed side will aim to avenge their loss to the league leaders earlier in the season, and finally move back into pole position.

With just one point separating two with 13 games remaining in the season, it will be a pivotal evening in determining the destination of the CSL crown for 2017.

Here are five things to look out for:

The impact of Oscar's continued absence

Former Chelsea midfielder Oscar joined Shanghai SIPG for 60 millions Euros at the start of the season. Although his impact has not been as significant as that of compatriot Hulk, the club continue to feel his absence, following the eight-game suspension handed to him by the Chinese Football Association (CFA) back in June.

Shanghai SIPG brawl vs. R&F
Oscar is halfway through an eight-game suspension for his part in June's brawl involving his Shanghai SIPG

As a result, Oscar will again be missing for SIPG as he serves the fifth game of his suspension. But with CSL rules only permitting three foreign players at any given time, the ban has made it easier for Villas-Boas to pick his team.

Elkeson and Hulk are now the first two names selected, while Odil Ahmedov from Uzbekistan can also expect to start. On top of this, Wu Lei's importance to the team amplified with Oscar out.

How Guangzhou cope with Zheng's suspension

While SIPG will be without Oscar, Evergrande will be missing Zheng Zhi, arguably a bigger loss for Luiz Felipe Scolari's side.

Even at 36 years old, Zheng remains one of China's finest, and his influence on Guangzhou is most telling when he's not involved.

Zheng Zhi came in for praise following Guangzhou Evergrande's win on Friday.
Even at 36, Guangzhou's Zheng Zhi is still one China's most influential midfielders

The decision by the CFA to ban the former Charlton Athletic midfielder for four games for not leading his team into a post-match handshake with match officials was deemed harsh. Without him controlling the tempo in the middle, Guangzhou will be without a key part of the team's fabric for the last seven seasons.

Muriqui's return

Both teams were relatively quiet in the summer transfer window. Much of the focus for Guangzhou was holding onto Paulinho, the club's stand-out performer so far this season, as Barcelona continue to circle.

But with just days to go before the window shut, Evergrande announced the return of striker Muriqui. He had been instrumental in Guangzhou's early success, winning two CSL titles and the AFC Champions League (ACL) with the club in his first stint.

While the Brazilian's career has been underwhelming since, he understands the club, and the CSL as well as anyone. He will slot right back into Scolari's squad with ease.

The result leaves Luiz Felipe Scolari's Guangzhou Evergrande with an almost insurmountable deficit to overturn.
Luiz Felipe Scolari's Guangzhou Evergrande will go four points clear at the top if they can win their second meeting with Shanghai SIPG.

Can he pull off a fairytale return to play a season-defining role against SIPG on Saturday?

AFC Champions League dress rehearsal

While the game could be decisive in determining the destination of the title, it could also have a psychological impact on the outcome when the teams meet in the ACL quarterfinals next month.

Remarkably, the top two teams in the CSL were drawn to face each other in the last eight of the continental championship. Guangzhou are chasing their third Asian title in five seasons while SIPG aim to surpass their run to last year's quarterfinals.

Player eligibility rules mean both sides will be able to field more foreign players in the ACL so the line ups facing off will likely have subtle differences. But a blow to either team's morale in the league could have additional repercussions.

Setting the tone for the rest of CSL season

While both teams will have 12 CSL games left once their head-to-head encounter has been completed, victory for Guangzhou would see Scolari's side open up a four-point gap over SIPG.

Evergrande have already suffered three league defeats this season, with back-to-back losses against Tianjin Quanjian and Beijing Guoan in recent weeks. But despite that record, the six-time champions have been more ruthless, winning matches even when they haven't been playing well.

Shanghai SIPG manager Andre Villas-Boas
Victory for Andre-Villas Boas and Shanghai SIPG would take them top for the first time since Round 3

Victory in this game would further embolden a Guangzhou side who have only occasionally played flowing, entertaining football.

Meanwhile, the more eye-catching SIPG -- they have the best attacking record in the league and the second-best defence -- would surely struggle to pick themselves up again to overhaul such a deficit.

Should SIPG take all three points, however, Villas-Boas' side would move into pole position for the first time since the third round of matches, and would hold a two-point advantage over Evergrande.

Would the Shanghai side thrive in the position of front runners, or would the pressure be too much? And would being in the unaccustomed role of being in pursuit further enhance the fighting qualities of Scolari and his team? Or will it signal the beginning of the end of Guangzhou's remarkable run of consecutive league title wins?

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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