SHANGHAI: Guangzhou Evergrande's seven-year domination of Chinese football could be under threat in what is shaping up to be the most fiercely contested title race in recent memory.
Shanghai SIPG stand top of the Chinese Super League (CSL) on goal difference from Shandong Luneng after a third of the campaign with Beijing Guoan, Jiangsu Suning and Guangzhou Evergrande all lined up closely behind them.
Just two points separate the top five but Guangzhou Evergrande coach Fabio Cannavaro is pleading for patience from fans who grown used to seeing their side lift the CSL title -- they have done it in each of the past seven years.
"We respect our supporters and are very thankful to them, but we also hope that they can be more understanding sometimes," said the Italian World Cup-winner after some fans made their anger clear in the 2-2 home draw with mid-table Hebei China Fortune on Saturday.
Cannavaro, who took over from the Brazilian coach Luiz Felipe Scolari in the close season, admitted his side were fortunate to get a point against a Hebei team containing former Barcelona star Javier Mascherano and coached by former Manchester City and Real Madrid boss Manuel Pellegrini.
Cannavaro's position will come under scrutiny if two-time Asian champions Guangzhou fail to see off fellow Chinese side Tianjin Quanjian, who were managed by the Italian last season, in the last 16 of the AFC Champions League on Tuesday.
The tie is poised at 0-0 after last week's first leg in Tianjin.
Shandong would have gone top of the CSL with victory at mid-table Tianjin, but instead they needed a 96th-minute equaliser from former Southampton striker Graziano Pelle to rescue a point after Alexandre Pato put the home side in front.
The Guangzhou Daily said top spot appeared to be "toxic".
"After drawing with Hebei, Guangzhou have not tasted victory in four matches. Maybe the top spot is toxic," the newspaper said.
"Shandong also 'refused' the summit with a draw, even though they are level on points with Shanghai.
"For other top teams, Beijing Guoan also 'abandoned' the chance to go top after drawing (2-2 at home) with Guangzhou R&F."
They are not machines
Shanghai SIPG, who boast the expensive Brazilians Oscar and Hulk, looked set to run away with the CSL this season after winning their first six games.
But under their stern-faced Portuguese coach Vitor Pereira their form has dipped alarmingly.
They still sit top with 20 points from 10 games but the heat is on Pereira, who took over from the former Chelsea and Tottenham Hotspur coach Andre Villas-Boas in the close season.
Shanghai's Champions League hopes are in peril after they were beaten 3-1 at Japan's Kashima Antlers -- the last-16 second leg is at home on Wednesday -- and again missing the injured striker Hulk they could only draw 1-1 at bottom-of-the-table Guizhou Hengfeng on Saturday.
It was further proof that in this most unpredictable of seasons there is little between the top and bottom sides in the 16-team CSL.
Pereira, whose side have failed to win their last four league games, said their busy schedule of domestic and continental competition was catching up with them.
"I can't ask any more of the players," said Pereira.
"They are very tired and they are not machines so they can't always be at the top of their game."
The Portuguese, who is under pressure to win at least one trophy this season, is already looking forward to next month when the league will pause for the World Cup.