Dalian Pro relegated as Chinese Super League comes to an end

Chinese Super League

The 2023 Chinese Super League season has officially come to an end with some significant impact on a number of teams throughout the Middle Kingdom.

Firstly, the honour of being named Champions of Chinese Football had already been confirmed a week prior when Shanghai Port held nearest challengers Shandong Taishan to a 1-1 draw, ensuring they claimed their second CSL title after their 2019 success.

While the title had already wrapped up with a week to go, there were still a couple of scenarios that could have played out on the final day of the season at both ends of the table, with qualification for the inaugural AFC Champions League 2 and Relegation to China League One still to be decided.

Champions League 2 Showdown

Heading into the final match of the season, there was a three-way challenge for third place in the Chinese Super League, which would secure that club’s place in the upcoming AFC Champions League 2 competition.

The AFC Champions League 2 is the new second-tier continental competition, sitting below the AFC Champions League Elite and above the new AFC Challenge League, similar to UEFA’s own three-tier system of the Champions League, Europa League and Europa Conference League.

Zhejiang FC, Chengdu Rongcheng and Shanghai Shenhua all had a chance to claim the final spot, dependent on results, with Zhejiang and Shenhua facing off against each other on the final day of the season – truly adding to the excitement and anticipation for all three fanbases.

Chengdu Rongcheng claimed a 3-0 victory over Meizhou Hakka to finish the season on 53 points. A draw between Zhejiang and Shenhua would have seen both sides also finish with the same points total, making it a truly tight contest right to the final whistle.

Shenhua thought they had secured themselves victory when Cephas Malele scored a penalty in the 78th minute of the match, putting themselves 1-0 up. However, their lead was erased just four minutes late through a Nyasha Mushekwi equaliser in the 82nd minute.

Leonardo ended Shenhua fans’ hopes with his 19th goal of the season (10 for Changchun Yatai, 9 with Zhejiang) to send his side ahead in the 86th minute – a lead they would hold onto to secure themselves continental football once again next year, leapfrogging both Chengdu (53 points) and Shenhua (52 points) to end their season with 55 points.

There are still some formalities to wrap up with the Chinese FA Cup still ongoing, and the chance for Shanghai Shenhua to make an appearance in the final, which could see them land another continental spot depending on results.

Farewell Dalian

At the other end of the table, the writing was on the wall for Shenzhen FC effectively throughout the entire season and they ‘secured’ their place in China League One next season with a league-worst 12 points.

However, the battle to avoid finishing the second relegation spot went down to the wire, with Dalian Professional and Nanton Zhiyun looking to stay in the Chinese Super League for at least one more season.

Dalian had the more difficult situation to overcome, sitting two points behind Nantong and needing to claim victory over the newly crowned champions Shanghai Port, while Nantong simply needed Dalian to not win as they faced off against Tianjin Jinmen Tiger in their own final-day matchup.

Nantong’s fate was effectively out of their hands by half-time, where they were trailing 2-0 courtesy of goals from Farley Rosa and Robert Beric, while Dalian themselves headed into half-time surprisingly 1-0 ahead and holding onto the hope that they could stave off a comeback and secure their CSL future.

Things looked even better for them when Yan Xiangchuang scored a penalty in the 56th minute, giving them a 2-0 lead while had slight hopes of pulling back with a Wang Song penalty in the 65th minute.

However, the strength of the champions was too much for Dalian to handle as they rallied in the final 20 minutes of the match with Li Ang scoring in the 71st minute and talisman Wu Lei netting the equalising penalty eight minutes later.

Dalian’s misery was compounded when Wu Lei scored in the fourth minute of added time to give Port a 3-2 comeback victory, ending their season in perfect fashion as their title celebrations began and Dalian had to face the fact that next season, barring yet another stunning collapse of teams in the league to save them, they will play in China League One.

If they do officially play in the second tier next year, they will join five other Northeastern Chinese teams, including fellow city sharers Dalian Zhixing, meaning next year will see a Dalian derby for the first time since the 2017 season where Dalian Yifeng (the same club) played against Dalian Transcendence in China League One.

For now, though, that wraps up another season in the top tier of Chinese league football and a venture forward into another uncertain future likely remains, with many surprises and non-surprises along the way.