HONG KONG • The headlines have been dominated by late big-money signings made by Dalian Yifang, but it will be new rules rather than new arrivals that could shape the outcome of this year's Chinese Super League (CSL).
The newly-promoted club took centre stage with Monday's purchase of Atletico Madrid duo Yannick Carrasco and Nicolas Gaitan for a reported combined fee of €48 million (S$77.62 million) along with £4.4 million (S$8.02 million) buy Jose Fonte from West Ham, splashing cash in a way not seen since Shanghai SIPG's Asian record €60 million capture of Oscar.
Attempts to curb rampant spending since the Brazilian moved from Chelsea at the end of 2016 have largely been successful - a 100 per cent levy on transfers over 45 million yuan (S$9.3 million) has cooled a market that threatened to go into overdrive.
Another move by the Chinese Football Association (CFA) in December, however, looks likely to prove more influential in the outcome of this year's league crown.
In an attempt to develop players for the struggling Chinese national side, the CFA announced that clubs must start matches with the number of Chinese players under the age of 23 matching the number of foreign players.
While popular with fans who long for China to pull itself out of the international doldrums, the new rule has added an element of unpredictability to the new season.
"The new policy has made it difficult to make decisions on the line-up," new Guangzhou Evergrande coach Fabio Cannavaro said after his side's 4-1 Chinese Super Cup win over Shanghai Shenhua on Monday. "I didn't decide how to use our Under-23 players until the morning of the match."
Evergrande, winners of the last seven CSL titles, have prepared better than most for the new rules by signing Deng Hanwen, 23, Yang Liyu, 21, and Tang Shi, 23.
The trio represented China in January's Asia Under-23 championship and have bolstered Cannavaro's squad, with the Italian returning for a second stint at a club that fired him in 2015.
Favourites Evergrande lifted last season's title ahead of SIPG. They brought in Nemanja Gudelj to replace Paulinho who left for Barcelona. Hebei could pose the most serious threat to Guangzhou's stranglehold on the title with former Manchester City manager Manuel Pellegrini adding Javier Mascherano to the squad that finished fourth last year.