After safely negotiating the first half of the season, the Chinese Super League is ready to return with a second phase of action that promises intriguing title and relegation battles, as well as more access for fans.
Kicking off on Friday and ending on Nov 12, the second phase of the CSL's pandemic-shortened 2020 season features six knockout rounds to decide the champion, AFC Champions League slots and relegation places.
Based on the first-phase standings, the 16 teams have been divided into a championship group, playing in Suzhou, Jiangsu province, and a relegation group, to be contested in Dalian, Liaoning province.
After overcoming the many obstacles that the COVID-19 pandemic presented during the first phase, the CSL is now confident of a safe and successful conclusion to the campaign.
"Since the first day we've prepared for the return of this CSL season. We realized that this is not just about the return of Chinese soccer, it is significant for the sports world as a whole," said Liu Yi, secretary-general of the Chinese Football Association.
"It shows the positive results of China's success in controlling the epidemic to the nation, the people and the world... During the whole process, there have been many complicated problems to solve in terms of epidemic prevention, logistics, scheduling, broadcasting and security. Scientific management is required to run such a big system. We used many technologies to make our work more efficient."
This year's CSL season was originally scheduled to kick off on Feb 22, until the pandemic forced its postponement until July, behind closed doors in Suzhou and Dalian.
Apart from frequent tests for COVID-19, the league's strict epidemic prevention regulations included requiring players and coaches to stay in lockdown areas with no contact with the outside world. Violators of the rules risked possible expulsion from the league for the remainder of the season.
The league has begun to allow limited numbers of fans back into stadiums－although spectators are required to go through a complex health-screening process that includes nucleic acid tests.
The CSL has pledged to make more seats available to fans during the run-in.
Suzhou is reportedly preparing to open all its matches to fans, and will operate a less-stringent screening procedure that does not include nucleic acid testing. Dalian, on the other hand, will open two stadiums to fans with a capacity of 3,000 each match. Tickets for games can be ordered online
Supporters, though, will still need to follow local epidemic prevention regulations. Face masks will be mandatory and fans will also need to show their personal health QR codes to gain entry.
"At the very beginning, we had worries because there were no high-level sports events in China in the first half of this year," said Liu." Also, when the league started, the weather was really hot in the two host cities. We thought the quality of the matches might suffer. Plus, the match schedule was really tight.
"After the first phase, according to our analysis, some of this season's data is even better than the same period last year. This is really rare, but it's all thanks to the joint efforts of everyone, including all the clubs, the medical teams and everyone who helped guarantee the quality of the league during such a special time."
As far as the action goes, defending champion Guangzhou Evergrande remains the favorite for title glory after finishing top of Group A on 34 points. Evergrande's biggest threat is expected to come from Shanghai SIPG, which topped Group B on 32 points, and Beijing Guo'an, which finished second behind 2018 champion SIPG.
"We had just a few days' rest after the first phase and then we quickly returned to the pitch to train. We are all ready to win the title," said Evergrande midfielder Yan Dinghao.
"Now we are in a great spirits and I'm sure we'll be in peak condition on the pitch. I just hope to stay healthy during the tight schedule and wish the team good luck."
SIPG defender Fu Huan acknowledged that wresting the league trophy back from Evergrande won't be easy, saying: "There's no weak teams in the championship group... We will quickly adjust to the second phase which will be shorter. So, over the next month, we'll give the best of us and win as much as we can."