Guangzhou Evergrande are CSL favourites but under pressure this year
Fabio Cannavaro is all too aware of one of the biggest issues he faces as he begins his second stint at the helm of Guangzhou Evergrande, the Chinese Super League's seemingly eternal champions.
"I've been telling my players that no matter how many titles they have gained, you have to stay hungry for the next one," he said after Monday's evening's Chinese Super Cup victory over Shanghai Shenhua.
To date Guangzhou Evergrande have never lacked the desire to dominate Chinese and Asian football. Seven league titles in a row since the club were promoted from the second division at the end of 2010, in addition to two Asian Champions League titles and two Chinese FA Cup crowns, mark Guangzhou out as China's most successful ever club.
But despite Guangzhou's on-going dominance, Cannavaro is right to be concerned that their run of success could be about to come to an end.
The loss of key players, an aging squad and the difficulty many clubs have encountered due to new transfer regulations put in place by the Chinese Football Association (CFA) could conspire to bring Evergrande's reign to an end.
Paulinho, unquestionably the best player in the league until his departure last August for Barcelona, has never been adequately replaced and Nemanja Gudelj, who was picked up from Tianjin Teda, is unlikely to be capable of the commanding performances of his predecessor.
The club have chosen not to reinvest the €40m received from the Catalans in a player of a similar calibre to the Brazilian, hampered in part by the stipulation by the CFA that clubs must pay a 100 percent levy on transfers over RMB45m (around €5m), effectively doubling the price of any top class signing.
However, age, and the demands of another long season on both the domestic and continental fronts, could ultimately be what undoes Evergrande. Captain Zheng Zhi turns 38 in August but remains a central figure, while Feng Xiaoting, Huang Bowen and Gao Lin -- all pivotal characters in the Guangzhou story -- are the wrong side of 30.
But Guangzhou have done some astute business. The club moved to pick up three of China's most talented young players -- Deng Hanwen, Tang Shi and Yang Liyu -- in an attempt to strengthen an area that will be vital for every club in the league.
New regulations for the coming season mean coaches must field as many players under the age of 23 as they do foreigners. And with a maximum of three foreigners permitted to start each game, Evergrande's signing of the young trio allows Cannavaro the freedom to select all his foreign players on a more regular basis.
Indeed, it is this rule more than any other that could shape the title race, with the quality of each club's young players being just as important as that of their imports.
In that regard, last season's runners up Shanghai SIPG have been hit by the loss of 22-year-old Wei Shihao, with the youngster joining a Beijing Guoan side that have been busy in the window as they seek to bolster the team Roger Schmidt took to ninth place last season.
Schmidt oversaw a massive upturn in Beijing's form immediately after replacing Jose Gonzalez in July and, although they were unable to maintain their push for a place in the Asian Champions League, their business could see them challenge.
That, though, will depend on the CFA and how they view Beijing's apparent capture of Cedric Bakambu from Villarreal. The Congolese forward has trained with the club and been photographed signing a five-year contract, but Beijing have yet to officially announce his arrival owing to issues around his transfer.
Bakambu left Villarreal after his €40m release clause was trigger by the player himself, with fingers pointed in the direction of Beijing for funding the move. Seen as a way to skirt the transfer regulations, the move ultimately prompted the governing body to issue clarification on their rules, stating clubs seeking to circumnavigate in any way faced the possibility of a 10-point penalty.
The rules have not stopped newly promoted Dalian Yifang splashing the cash on Yannick Carrasco, Nicolas Gaitan and Jose Fonte, but the newly-arrived trio could be in for a frustrating season as Ma Lin's team find their feet in the top division.
SIPG, meanwhile, are under new management after Vitor Pereira replaced Andre Villas-Boas -- now a driver in the Dakar Rally. Oscar and Hulk remain, however, and SIPG will be eyeing up their first-ever trophy.
While others have undergone considerable upheaval, Manuel Pellegrini's Hebei China Fortune could be the greatest beneficiaries of a quiet four months since narrowly missing out on a top three finish last season.
Pellegrini has added Javier Mascherano to a squad that has lost Brazilian striker Aloisio but retains Ezequiel Lavezzi, who shone brightly in spells last season. With no distractions beyond domestic competition and a settled side, Hebei should find themselves mounting a strong challenge for the title this time around but they will have some stiff competition as Guangzhou look for their eighth.
Michael Church has written about Asian football for more than 20 years and mainly covers the Chinese game for ESPN FC. Twitter: @michaelrgchurch