2017 China wishes: A new CSL champion; improved national team
Huge sums of money continue to flow into the Chinese game but the national team's struggles go on. At face value, many of the issues that affected Chinese football at the start of 2016 remain in place 12 months later.
But there have been encouraging signs throughout the last year, with clubs putting in a solid showing in the AFC Champions League and the national team advancing to the final phase of the continent's World Cup qualifying tournament for the first time in 16 years.
Government investment has increased in many areas but the country's youth teams have been found to be lacking at continental level, with China failing to qualify for the finals of the AFC Under-16 Championship and the U-19s not making it out of their group at the Asian Championship in Bahrain. Meanwhile, the U-23 men's team failed to reach the Rio Olympics.
Here are five wishes for Chinese football for 2017:
1. A new champion
It has become a familiar story: The lead-up to the Chinese Super League features any number of clubs spending huge sums on foreign players and coaches, only for Guangzhou Evergrande to win the title. In 2016, they won the Super Cup to kick off the season and also claimed the CFA Cup after retaining the league title.
Shanghai SIPG have gone big again with the signing of Oscar from Chelsea and Shanghai Shenhua have lured Carlos Tevez. Hebei China Fortune fell short last year after bringing in Gael Kakuta, Gervinho and Stephane Mbia, but expectations will have increased after bringing in Manuel Pellegrini as coach with two months remaining of the season.
Guangzhou, Jiangsu and both Shanghai clubs, SIPG and Shenhua, will be distracted by the ACL, perhaps leaving Pellegrini and his Hebei team to have a solid run at winning the league title.
Luiz Felipe Scolari and his players, however, have shown they know how to fight on multiple fronts. With a squad that still contains the best Chinese players allied to high quality foreigners, it's hard to see anyone stopping Guangzhou from winning a record-extending seventh CSL title in a row.
2. A better showing in the ACL
Shanghai SIPG and Shandong Luneng reached the quarterfinals of the ACL in 2016, the first time two clubs from China had progressed to the last eight of the continental championship since 2005. But with defending champions Guangzhou Evergrande knocked out in the group stages, Chinese clubs came up short of keeping the title in China.
With big money being spent on foreign talent and China's resulting status within the global game, it's time clubs other than Guangzhou made deep inroads into the ACL. A place in the final is the least Chinese football should be achieving and the pressure will be on big spending Shanghai SIPG in particular to deliver.
3. A national team to believe in
It might not appear to be the case when you glance at the standings at the halfway point in the final phase of Asia's World Cup qualifying campaign, but things have improved for the China national team in the last 12 months.
At the end of 2015, China looked destined to miss out on the final phase of qualifying for the 2018 World Cup. But then they won their last two games against Maldives and Qatar to book their place in the final round for the first time since qualifying for the 2002 finals in South Korea and Japan.
Admittedly, China have been far from impressive in the final phase. But, given this is the first time many of the nation's players have played at this level with so much at stake, it should come as little surprise that the performances have been inconsistent. A lack of belief and experience, coupled with a squad of questionable quality, was always going to make the task difficult.
Former manager Gao Hongbo was shown to be tactically lacking at the very highest level in Asia, while his attitude towards picking the squad was roundly criticized by many. Whether highly-paid Marcello Lippi can turn things around remains to be seen, but the Italian World Cup winner at least has the trust of almost everyone involved and that should give him the time to make the required changes. It's not likely to be enough, however, to secure a place in Russia.
4. More Chinese players overseas
Much has been made of the number of foreign players moving to China, while the salaries for the best domestic players are also on the rise. As a result, the number of Chinese players willing to take a risk and move overseas has diminished.
Only Zhang Yuning of China's national team plays outside the country, while Zhang Chengdong spent last season on loan at Rayo Vallecano. But if Chinese football wants to improve, particularly at national team level, more players need to be prepared to go in the other direction and learn about the game outside their comfort zone. The likes of Wu Lei and Zhang Linpeng are more than capable.
5. Be patient
For all the money spent on the top end of the game in China, the longer term issue remains a shallow local talent pool. The only way that can be corrected is by investment and planning in the development sphere. The right steps are being taken, and football -- like a number of sports -- is benefiting from an increase in funding and focus at grassroots' level.
More needs to be done, but perhaps more importantly China's notoriously impatient football fans need to give the projects now in place time to come to fruition. Tearing everything down because the national team is struggling won't help anyone.
Michael Church has written about Asian football for more than 20 years and mainly covers the Chinese game for ESPN FC. Twitter: @michaelrgchurch