Teda and Quanjian, Tianjin's two top sides, headed in opposite directions
With Chinese Super League derby fixtures coming thick and fast at the present time, Tianjin's two top sides Teda and Quanjian go head-to-head this weekend in a battle for three crucial points.
Teda, long established in the CSL, are in a desperate fight against a possible relegation, level on points with bottom-placed Yanbian Fude and one point from safety. Quanjian, on the other hand, have enjoyed a successful first season in the top flight and are on the verge of securing a possible AFC Champions League place. For Fabio Cannavaro's side, it has been a dream campaign to date.
There has been a changing of the guard in Tianjin, an industrial metropolis of 15 million people less than an hour from Beijing. Both clubs have significant wealth and Teda themselves have at times spent big over the past few seasons, but they have not been able to compete with their neighbours over the past 12 months with Axel Witsel, Alexandre Pato and Anthony Modeste all arriving in quick succession. Quanjian's ambitions are simple -- to reach the very top of Asian football in as quick a fashion as possible.
For Teda's supporters, 2017 has simply been the continuation of what is now a long-running downward trend. Being runners-up finish in 2010 was the culmination of seven consecutive seasons inside the league's top six positions, a feat they have yet to match since. In 2011, a CFA Cup was won -- the club's only major trophy to date.
Yet the subsequent six years have brought little in the way of success. Instead of consolidating as one of the leading powers in Chinese football, Teda have suffered in a similar manner to many of the country's more historic clubs. Mismanagement and poor recruitment have blighted the club, with Teda now on their fourth permanent manager in the past two seasons -- not to mention alternating between three stadiums in that time.
"Even though we're in a tough situation, I still believe we are a big team," Sam Wang, a founding member of a Tianjin Teda fan group told ESPN FC.
"We still have so many supporters who are passionate about our team. During the first derby of the season, the 500 'away' supporters allowed were louder than the huge numbers of Quanjian fans.
"You can buy famous players but you can't buy loyal fans; that's why I still have faith in my team."
Times are testing for even the most loyal of Teda fans, though. Just like supporters of Beijing Guoan, Shanghai Shenhua, Shangong Luneng, Liaoning and others, they have seen a new wave of clubs rise to the top of Chinese football with massive external investment and fresh management introduced.
While the traditional powerhouses' initial advantage kept them at the top for a while, their reliance on local government-produced players rather than their own academy setups meant others could quickly rise to challenge them. It is no coincidence that the CSL's top four sides at the moment are all clubs largely rebuilt from the bottom up under new ownership. Teams such as Teda and Shenhua who chose evolution over revolution have largely failed to keep up with the pace.
Teda's is not an issue of simply spending more. While they may lack top Chinese talent, a brief look at their squad shows John Obi Mikel, Brown Ideye, Frank Acheampong and Mbaye Diagne among those contributing to a sizeable wage bill. New coach Uli Stielike will doubtless be afforded further backing, should he survive to the season's end.
However, consistent change is surely a contributing factor to Teda's struggles. Even foreign players who performed to a high level for the club, such as Erik Paartalu, Hernan Barcos and Andrezinho, were swapped for new recruits when it was perhaps better to stick than twist. In the past four seasons alone, the club have used a remarkable 21 different foreign players despite a limit of five in the squad at any one time. A new arrival spends an average of less than one season at the club.
"We have had several players who were often injured, such as Malick Evouna and now Mikel," Wang added.
"But there is a problem with the scouting and management of the club. They don't know what kind of players we really need and end up wasting the money of a state-owned company every year."
Teda face a fight over the weeks ahead to retain their top-flight status, with difficult games ahead against Quanjian, Shenhua, Guangzhou R&F and longtime rivals Guoan among those remaining. From a position of some strength, Teda have come to epitomise the instability of many clubs in China and the resulting long-term difficulties created.
Salvation could still come this season, but Teda face a major challenge ahead if they are to halt their slide and retain their status among China's elite long-term. City rivals Quanjian have already shown up their "older brother," but things may get worse before they get better for Tianjin's most traditional club. Defeat this weekend would simply add to their growing concerns.
Chris Atkins is based in China and writes for ESPN FC about the Chinese Super League. You can follow him on Twitter @ChrisAtkins_.