A Chinese Super League season which began five months late and without spectators because of the coronavirus will reach its climax with Fabio Cannavaro’s Guangzhou Evergrande facing Jiangsu Suning in front of 7,000 fans.
The title decider takes place over two legs on neutral territory in Suzhou, with the first match on Sunday and second on Thursday.
In order to keep the players safe and make up for time lost to the pandemic, the CSL was vastly revamped when it kicked off in July.
Players and coaches have been kept away from the public in two secure “bubbles”, in Suzhou and Dalian, although some spectators have been allowed to return in recent weeks.
The 16 teams have been engaged in a two-legged knockout competition to decide final league placings, rather than the regular home-and-away format.
Despite the disruption, the CSL has taken on a familiar hue with Cannavaro’s Evergrande, the eight-time champions, two matches away from retaining their title.
The Italian World Cup-winner said he will have to put aside his friendship with Suning’s Romanian coach Cosmin Olaroiu.
“I joked with him in the first stage of the league, hoping we can meet in the final,” said the 47-year-old, after his side beat Beijing Guoan 3-1 on aggregate in the semi-finals.
“In fact, I don’t think they have any obvious shortcomings across the pitch,” added Cannavaro, whose title last season with Evergrande was his first major honour as a coach.
The teams met twice in the first phase of the CSL, with Evergrande winning the first match 2-1 but Suning reversing that scoreline in the return fixture.
Former Barcelona midfielder Paulinho scored twice against Guoan and fellow Brazilian Anderson Talisca converted a penalty, but Cannavaro has concerns about their fitness over 90 minutes.
The Chinese Football Association has capped the number of spectators because of the virus but expects about 7,000 fans to attend each leg.
– Wuhan Zall in danger –
Jiangsu Suning, who are based in the eastern city of Nanjing, are owned by the giant Suning Group, who also own Inter Milan.
The team have never won the CSL but were runners-up behind Evergrande in 2012 and 2016.
Their star man is also Brazilian, the attacker Alex Teixeira, who cost about 50 million euros when he joined from Shakhtar Donetsk in 2016, reportedly turning down Liverpool.
The 30-year-old has scored nine times this season, averaging a goal every other game.
Olaroiu’s men reached the final by beating a Shanghai SIPG team captained by Brazilian Oscar 3-2 on aggregate in extra time, despite playing an hour with only 10 men.
“They deserve to be there (the final), for the work they’ve done, for the sacrifice they made,” said the 51-year-old, who has masterminded league titles in Romania, Saudi Arabia and United Arab Emirates.
“The day before the game (against SIPG), I said that in life there are some moments that we will never forget.
“And this day they will never forget.”
At the other end of the CSL, Wuhan Zall, the team from ground zero of the pandemic, play Shijiazhuang Ever Bright over two legs, on Saturday on Wednesday, with the loser relegated.
The winner is still in grave danger of demotion and must face the runner-up in the second division for a spot in next season’s CSL.