(Reuters) - Reigning champions Guangzhou Evergrande take on FA Cup winners Shanghai Shenhua on Saturday as the 2020 Chinese Super League (CSL) season finally kicks off after a five-month delay due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
The league was originally scheduled to start on Feb. 22 but was postponed due to the novel coronavirus outbreak, which has infected more than 83,700 people in mainland China and left authorities cautious about resuming professional sport.
Guangzhou, managed by Italian World Cup-winner Fabio Cannavaro, are looking to clinch a ninth CSL title in 10 seasons but could face a tricky test due to the new format introduced to make up for lost time.
Instead of the traditional home-and-away system, the 16 CSL teams will play a round robin in two groups with the top four from each qualifying for an eight-team “championship” stage and the remaining eight going into a “relegation” phase.
“I studied the schedule for the new season and I knew we’ll encounter many difficulties,” Cannavaro was quoted as saying by state news agency Xinhua.
“(But) we’ll fight as one and achieve our goal in the next two months.”
Each group will be based in a single hub — one in Suzhou near Shanghai and the other in Dalian in the northeast - and organisers have been encouraged by zero COVID-19 cases in the two “bubbles” after 1,870 tests were conducted.
Players and officials will be confined to their hotels and parts of the stadiums, and tests will be conducted once a week during the competition, which will have 112 matches over 14 rounds during the first stage.
“Our anti-epidemic measures are very strict, and those who violate them could be kicked out of the league for this season,” Qi Jun, the CSL official who is responsible for virus control measures, told Xinhua.
“The teams and players shouldn’t expect to be only fined or suspended for their violation.”
Tianjin Tianhai, who folded under the financial pressure of the COVID-19 shutdown, have been replaced by Shenzhen FC in the Dalian hub which includes Cannavaro’s side and Dalian Pro, managed by veteran Spanish coach Rafa Benitez.
Suzhou will host last year’s runners-up Beijing Guoan and seven other sides including Wuhan Zall, who are also in action on the opening day against Qingdao Huanghai.
Shanghai Shenhua will be without Nigerian striker Odion Ighalo, who extended his loan move to Manchester United until January.
Reporting by Shrivathsa Sridhar in Bengaluru; Editing by Peter Rutherford