Chinese Super League (CSL) champions Guangzhou Evergrande were handed a stern opening test in their quest for an eighth straight Chinese top-flight title as they host crosstown rivals Guangzhou R&F in the first round of the new season, according to the 2018 fixtures revealed by the Chinese Football Association (CFA) on Tuesday.
Despite winning a record seventh CSL title last season, Evergrande didn't have the upper hand in the two games against R&F when they were held to a 2-2 draw at home and lost 4-2 in the away tie.
Then after two home games that should not cause trouble against Changchun Yatai and Henan Jianye, Evergrande will begin a tricky period that might end up defining their whole season. They have to play a series of strong teams in the next five rounds: big spenders Tianjin Quanjian who as new boys beat Evergrande in both meetings last season and finished third in the CSL, sixth-placed Shandong Luneng who beat the champions 2-1 at home, last season's underachievers Shanghai Shenhua, old foes Beijing Guoan who defeated Evergrande 2-0 in Beijing and finally Jiangsu Suning, who also spent big last season but finished 12th in the 16-team league.
After a theoretically easy home tie with Guizhou Zhicheng, Evergrande travel to Shanghai to take on last season's runners-up SIPG. Although failing to beat the champions in their two league games, SIPG knocked out Evergrande in the Asian Champions League quarterfinals on penalties after an aggregate score of 5-5 in two rounds.
There will be three games which all kick off at 7:35 pm on the first game day of the season (Friday March 2), while an opening ceremony will be held one day later at the Tianjin Olympic Center Stadium before Tianjin Teda host Hebei China Fortune. The Tianjin club last hosted the Chinese league's opening ceremony in the first season of the newly founded CSL in 2004.
Fans don't have to wait long for -high-profile games as the CFA has lined up some real crackers in the early rounds. Luneng vs Guoan will be the highlight of the first round while a surely eventful Shanghai derby between Shenhua and SIPG is scheduled for Round 2. The two teams both boast international stars in the likes of Brazilians Hulk and Oscar, and former Inter Milan players Obafemi Martins and Fredy Guarin. The two sides scored 11 goals in their two games last season. In the last 11 games between the two since 2013, a total of 69 yellow and eight red cards were shown to players. In their first matchup, a total of eight players were shown yellow.
The fight for Champions League spots might go down to the wire as promising contenders face each other in the late rounds. Some of the high-profile matchups are Evergrande vs SIPG, Quanjian vs Guoan, and Suning vs China Fortune in Round 28. In the penultimate round, R&F will host China Fortune, Shenhua will travel to Beijing to take on Guoan, and Suning visit Luneng.
Champions League berths could still be up for grabs in the final round as half of the eight games will be between the top teams, with Quanjian vs SIPG, -China Fortune vs Guoan the cream of the ties.