After lengthy Covid-19 delays, the Chinese Super League returns on Friday for the 2022 season opener, as defending champions Shandong Taishan face newly promoted Zhejiang FC in the city of Haikou. The build up to the 2022 season has not been short on drama, with lingering financial problems leading to the collapse of Qingdao FC and Chongqing Liangjiang Athletic. But despite the woes, the show goes on and the new season promises to serve up a number of tantalising storylines as new clubs and players join the fray and officials seek to work within the guidelines of complex coronavirus restrictions. We take a look at what’s in store and what’s at stake as the delayed 2022 season begins. What’s new? Well, a lot. For starters a record number of 18 clubs will compete in the 2022 CSL season under the catchy slogan of “Together for New A Future”. There’s a few new clubs too. Relegated in 2021, Dalian Pro have been bumped up to replace Chongqing Liangjiang Athletic, while also joining will be Wuhan Three Trees, Meizhou Hakka, and Chengdu Rongcheng. Where will games be played? This year, matches will take place in three bio-secure hubs in Meizhou, in south China’s Guangzhou Province, Dalian in the northern Liaoning Province, and Haikou in the southern city of Hainan. The first phase of the season – rounds 1-10 – will run from June 3 to July 12. During the 40-day span, clubs will play a total of 90 matches. Short of any major Covid-19 disruptions, the second phase will then go from July 21 to August 21, with the third phase from August 30 to September 30, and a final round of matches from October 9 to November 9. Mooy defies Shanghai Port in row over Australia’s World Cup play-off The Meizhou hub will feature Meizhou Hakka, Beijing Guoan, Shenzhen FC, Cangzhou Mighty Lions, Tianjin Jinmen Tigers and Chengdu Rongcheng. Dalian will be the base for Shanghai Port, Guangzhou FC, Hebei, Shanghai Shenhua, Wuhan Three Towns and Wuhan Changjiang in the opening stages. While Dalian Pro, Changchun Yatai, Guangzhou City, Songshan Longmen FC, and Zhejiang will battle it out in Haikou. Are fans allowed? Many had expected the season to begin in empty stadiums, but organisers said fans would be allowed at the opening match on Friday night. Liu Jun, CSL chairman, said local authorities in the three host cities had gone to “great efforts” to ensure games were not interrupted by virus outbreaks. Important games, he said, would open up to fans, although numbers would be restricted. He did not say what those restrictions were. Which teams should you watch? Given the sheer scale of change that has taken place over the past six months, the 2022 season is wide open. Defending champions Shandong Taishan come in as favourites, but their success in 2022 is no sure thing. The team’s biggest signing this year, Brazilian international Cryzan who joins from Santa Clara, has completed quarantine and joined the squad ahead of Friday’s fixture. Many will be watching how things play out for the financially stricken Guangzhou FC, or if they even survive the season. The eight-timeCSL champions suffered an exodus of players, including most of their Brazilian imports and star defender Zhang Linpeng. Only Ty Browning remains from the batch of imported naturalised players. Shanghai Port midfielder Oscar will be one player to watch, should he decide to return any time soon, that is. After leaving Shanghai during the city’s strict Covid-19 lockdown, the Brazilian has been unable to return, apparently because of flight disruptions, although he has been enjoying himself in the process. Hold on to your hats, it should be a wild ride.