Mahjong table ready as Chinese football re-enters virus 'bubbles'

Shanghai (AFP) –


Chinese Super League teams are returning to two secure "bubbles" designed to keep out the coronavirus, with the second half of the disrupted season starting on Friday.

The first part of the campaign saw the players confined to one hotel in Suzhou and one in Dalian for 10 weeks, allowed out only to train and play matches.

The strict measures, which meant no mixing with the outside world or seeing their families, were a success with no reported infections among players, coaches or support staff.

The second half of the season is shorter, ending on November 12, and takes place once more in Suzhou and Dalian.

The 16 teams will play two-legged knockout matches instead of the usual home-and-away formula in the revamped competition.

Former champions Shanghai SIPG, home to Brazilian stars Oscar and Hulk, clash with rivals Shanghai Shenhua on Sunday in the most eye-catching fixture of the restart.

Clubs are again doing their utmost to keep players entertained while in isolation.

Fabio Cannavaro's Guangzhou Evergrande, the reigning champions, were pictured shipping at least one mahjong table to Suzhou, where the championship will be decided.

Teams last time provided table tennis, karaoke and arcade machines, while one player was pictured carrying a large box of Lego.

The CSL kicked off on July 25, five months later than scheduled and behind closed doors because of the pandemic.

However, with local infections under control, Chinese football authorities have since allowed a very limited number of spectators into stadiums.

Evergrande easily topped the Dalian group after the first phase and SIPG led in Suzhou, underlining the title credentials of both clubs.

In Dalian, where teams will fight to avoid relegation in the second phase, former Liverpool manager Rafael Benitez faces a battle to keep his Dalian Pro side in the CSL after only two wins in 14 games this season.