Jiangsu Sainty sees sweet success with first foray in AFC Champions League
Traditional platform of training young talent pays off for club who make first foray into AFC
Big-spending Guangzhou Evergrande have claimed the silverware and Shanghai Shenhua the headlines, but while the Chinese Super League has undergone a financially fuelled transformation over the past two seasons, one club have managed to achieve success the old-fashioned way.
Jiangsu Sainty kick off their first foray into the AFC Champions League on Tuesday with a trip to South Korea to face K-League champions FC Seoul, with qualification for the continental championship marking the latest high point in the Nanjing-based club's development.
Promoted to the Chinese Super League in 2009, the first two seasons saw Jiangsu consolidate their position in the top flight before narrowly missing out on a place in the AFC Champions League last year with a fourth-place finish in 2011.
But rather than just a flash in the pan, 2011 heralded the arrival of a new power in the Chinese game, one that has not lavished money on big-name coaches or fading foreign stars.
"We are a grass-roots team," said one of China's finest soccer exports, 2002 World Cup striker and former Eintracht Frankfurt forward Yang Chen, who works as an assistant coach to the club's manager, Dragan Okuka.
"In my opinion, Evergrande invested a lot of money when Chinese football was at a low point and they've done a lot for Chinese football, but Jiangsu have a different model.
"We pay more attention to young players, we bring in young players and train them, bring them up through the club and that's the key contribution of our coach.
"Dragan has a sharp eye for great young players. This is what he has brought to the club, a great youth programme. We will stick to our own way. Clubs like Evergrande won't influence us. We will do things our own way."
That single-minded approach has paid off for Jiangsu, who pushed Guangzhou to the limit last year as the Guangdong club struggled to juggle the commitments their success delivered.
While eventually retaining the double of the Super League and FA Cup they had also won in 2011, Guangzhou's run to the quarter-finals of the AFC Champions League - where they lost out to two-time winners Al Ittihad of Saudi Arabia - stretched the club's considerable resources.
But even though Jiangsu do not have a World Cup-winning coach in charge like Marcello Lippi and have not shelled out the huge salaries that attract the likes of Didier Drogba, they have cultivated some of the up-and-coming stars of the Chinese game.
Deng Xiaofei was named Goalkeeper of the Year last season, while unheralded Romanian striker Cristian Danalache was the league's Most Valuable Player and top goal scorer.
An ankle injury has sidelined Danalache since the end of last season and, with the 30-year-old out until June, he will miss the group stages of the AFC Champions League, where Jiangsu will also face off against Japan's Vegalta Sendai and Buriram United from Thailand.
"We can't compare ourselves to Guangzhou because they can have two line-ups and they have some of the top players in the world," said Yang, whose team pushed Evergrande all the way in the league to finish second.
"They are playing at national team level. Even though we are aiming to do our best in the ACL, the CSL and in the FA Cup, we will stick to our own plan. We will go match-by-match.
"We have three main targets this year, the CSL, the ACL and the Chinese FA Cup and for us the main goal is the ACL because we are representing China. This is our first journey in the ACL and we want to get as much experience as we can by playing in this competition.
"But we know that the teams in this tournament are the best in each country. We want to go far in the ACL and we'll do our best in that and we will put our best into every game."
Guangzhou will also be flying the flag for China again this season, and Lippi and his team hope to build on last year's performance when, despite making their competition debut, there was some disappointment at only reaching the last eight.
Evergrande kick off their campaign on Tuesday at Tianhe Stadium with arguably the tie of the round as they face Japanese giants Urawa Reds, winners in 2007 and third-place finishers in last year's J-League.
Lippi's team remain as strong as before having retained Argentinian Dario Conca and Lucas Barrios, even though both South Americans were rumoured to be packing their bags.
Evergrande have also been drawn to meet Jeonbuk Motors, who they faced last year, and Thai champions Muangthong United in group F.
Beijing Guoan, third in last year's CSL, travel to Korea to meet Pohang Steelers on Wednesday in group G, which also contains Uzbekistan's Bunyodkor and J-League champions Sanfrecce Hiroshima.
Meanwhile, Chinese FA Cup runners-up Guizhou Renhe make their debut in group H against Kashiwa Reysol on the same day, with meetings against Central Coast Mariners from Australia and Suwon Bluewings from Korea also on the cards.