When four into three does not work: Chinese Super League teams juggle squads for AFC Champions League return

Defending champions Guangzhou Evergrande, Jiangsu Suning and Shanghai SIPG are all in continental action this week as coaches enjoy greater flexibility over player selection

PUBLISHED : Monday, 10 April, 2017, 1:06pm
UPDATED : Monday, 10 April, 2017, 1:06pm

This week sees Chinese Super League teams turn their attentions to the continental game and the AFC Champions League.

Defending Super League champions Guangzhou Evergrande, who have won two of the last four editions of the AFC Champions League, head to Japan to face Kawasaki Frontale sitting at the top of group G as Luiz Felipe Scolari’s side look to bounce back from a stuttering start to their domestic campaign.

Jiangsu Suning are also facing Japanese opposition as Gamba Osaka head to China with the hosts in possession of a 100 per cent record in group H after three games despite having picked up just one point from their first four Super League outings.

And in a quirk of the continental fixture computer, Shanghai SIPG also face a side from the J.League as they travel to Gamba Osaka with a perfect record after three games.

Games in the AFC Champions League grant coaches a little more flexibility in terms of squad selection with four foreign players allowed, compared to just three in the Super League.

This is down to the fact the Asian Football Confederation have retained the three plus one rule for 2017, a rule which was ditched by Super League bosses at the start of the season.

Only if everyone took youth development as seriously, China might stand a chance

Officials in Kuala Lumpur, where Asia’s governing body are based, are in fact looking to increase the number of foreign players a team can register in the AFC Champions League, although only four will be allowed to feature in one match.

“This will also help Asian teams when playing on the world stage. Strengthening the nationalisation criteria for players will also be looked at,” said the AFC in November 2016.

“The committee supported the continuation of the ‘three-plus-one’ rule, allowing for three foreign players and one Asian player in AFC club competition matches. There will be further meetings and workshops with relevant Member Associations, clubs and leagues to gather further views.”

The rule was introduced in 2009 “with the objective of the development of Asian players, and also to encourage Asian teams to recruit elite Asian players.”

Horrific it was not: Chinese football officials make Shanghai Shenhua’s Qin Sheng scapegoat in ludicrous attempt at justice

And it has been a roaring success with players from Asia popping up across the continent and arguably improving themselves and the clubs and leagues they play for and in.

But here lies the issue, did officials in China remove the plus one part of the rule from a match squad allowance as it was not only helping improve the Super League but also their rivals at national team level?

Super League teams are still allowed to have a plus one in their overall squad of 27, but of the five overseas player in their wider group, only three can be named to play in a game.

Now, does the fact South Korean defender Kim Young-gwon has won five Super League titles and two AFC Champions League crowns with Evergrande mean China’s failure to win the 2015 AFC Asian Cup or do better in the current qualifiers for the 2018 Fifa World Cup can be blamed on this rule?

International break offers chance to take Chinese Super League stock

Well, no. China’s failing as a national team are bigger and more far reaching than that, but it is an interesting point to note and ponder.

SIPG boss Andre Villas-Boas has been the sternest critic of the change to the rules in the Super League after the Shanghai side signed Uzbekistan midfielder Odil Akhmedov before the rules were changed.

Initially Akhmedov looked like he was to be left in limbo with SIPG already having filled their foreign player quota and Super League teams told they were only allowed three.

A quick backtrack and the plus one part of the rule was reinstated and Akhmedov was back in the picture, although this season with Brazilian Oscar, Hulk and Elkeson being prefereed in the Super League, he has only played two of the four games domestically but all four to date in the AFC Champions League after SIPG started in the play-offs.

Chinese Super League opener answers some questions and asks some new ones

Officially the rules was amended to help China at a national team level by giving more opportunities to Chinese players, including the oft-abused rule forcing teams to start one Chinese player aged under 23.

But just think, if Muriqui, Dario Conca, Elkeson and Kim had not helped Evergrande win China’s first AFC Champions League title for 23 years in 2013, China would be world beaters by now ...