Watchdogs out in force for China climax
With only three rounds of matches remaining in the Chinese First Division, it is hard to judge who feels the pressure more: the teams battling for championship honours, those involved in the dogfight against relegation or the Chinese Football Association (CFA) itself.
The answer is probably the CFA. It has ordered that all matches in the remaining rounds should begin at the same time, 2.30pm; foreign referees will be hired for certain key matches; and senior officials will be dispatched to supervise games involving Bayi Xiangtan, Shaanxi Guoli, Chongqing Lifan, Qingdao Beilaite, Tianjin Taida and Sichuan Guancheng, who are all below sixth in the standings.
CFA sources say the moves are aimed at minimising the potential for scandal as the season enters its most crucial stage.
While the teams at the top and the bottom of the league are paying close attention to the remaining matches, most of the rest are looking ahead to next season.
Beijing Hyundai, in 12th place, are not worried about their fate this year because they are seven points above the team below them. Reports are circulating that the club have offered more than 10 million yuan to buy 24-year-old Zhao Junzhe, the captain of Liaoning Zhongshun and one of the best defenders on the mainland.
'I think they will consider our offer, because it is a good price, especially for a struggling club,' a Hyundai club official was quoted by local media as saying.
Liaoning Zhongshun, ranked eighth, are in a financial crisis. They haven't paid their players for several months and are battling to attract fans. Part of the problem is that the the team are forced to use the provincial name Liaoning rather than that of a city, and therefore find it difficult to build up a loyal fan base.
What they need, according to one Liaoning player, is a permanent home. 'We need the home feeling,' he said. 'Fans in the cities that we have played in haven't really warmed to us because we don't have a permanent base.'
The team are considering changing their registration to Shenyang, in order to stage exciting derby matches with Shenyang Jinde, according to club insiders. Another problem club, 14th-ranked Bayi Xiangtan, are facing an uncertain future. There are plans to shut down the team following the government's decision to downsize the army.
There are three possibilities: selling the squad as a whole to a company, selling all the players to other squads, or dismissing the players from the army payroll and arranging other jobs for them. It seems that the first option is the most likely.
This weekend's play sees leaders Shanghai Shenhua travel to Beijing Hyundai today, while Shanghai Inter, second in the standings, host Liaoning Zhongshun. Third-ranked Dalian Shide visit Shaanxi Guoli, who are 15th. Fourth-placed Shenzhen Jianlibao have a bye.