Gao Lin, Zheng Zhi at heart of Guangzhou Evegrande glory
Relentlessly and predictably, Guangzhou Evergrande further cemented their status as China's dominant force, securing a seventh straight Chinese Super League (CSL) crown last week, with two games remaining. It makes them the envy of their deep-pocketed, big spending counterparts for another season at least.
Billions of renminbi have been spent collectively by Shanghai SIPG, Hebei CFFC, Tianjin Quanjian and others in an attempt to prize the domestic title out of the hands of the southern Chinese giants. But that wait will go on for at least another 12 months as the trophy remains at Tianhe Stadium.
Household names with reputations to match their inflated salaries have been unable to crack the deep-rooted foundations that have continued to give Guangzhou a massive advantage over the chasing pack.
The reasons put forward for the club's continued success are many. They principally revolve around money and timing. The Evergrande corporation, one of China's biggest property developers, bought the club in early 2010, long before the rush by the country's business elite to involve themselves in the sport.
Simply investing in the best foreign and local talent, however, was not the only reason Guangzhou were able to commence a run of eight straight title wins. That started when Evergrande claimed the China League One crown as a precursor to their CSL odyssey.
Bringing the right people to the club, and instilling a winning culture, have been of paramount importance, with two of the earliest signings remaining key to Guangzhou's dominance.
Gao Lin's arrival at Evergrande from Shanghai Shenhua caused a major stir back in 2010. The then 23-year-old national team striker -- he was known by fans as Gaolinsmann -- made the switch to the then-second division side.
He was swiftly followed by Zheng Zhi, who signed from Celtic after spending time at Charlton Athletic. He'd already won two Chinese league titles with Shenzhen Jianlibao and Shandong Luneng, and provided the club with talent on the field -- and credibility off it.
But, perhaps even more importantly, the duo helped instill the culture that sees Guangzhou continue to lead the way in Chinese football.
While others have spent heavily, Evergrande have not only bought better, but have worked hard to integrate their foreigners fully.
"The atmosphere within our team is always fantastic with the foreign players," Gao explained last week. "Every time we have a new foreign player, Zheng Zhi or I will help them settle in and explain to them that we are a team [and] that we work together and we help each other out.
"We need to work together to gain titles for the club and no one is irreplaceable. That is why Evergrande are always able to maximize the impact of our foreign players, unlike at some other clubs where big name players come in with an arrogant attitude. Then, the club and the Chinese players have to compromise to make just one player happy."
Achieving that harmonious atmosphere has been as important as signing the best players or the most experienced foreign coaches.
Guangzhou have had their fair share of disappointments. Among them, the perpetually injured Jackson Martinez and Alessandro Diamanti, who failed to fully fire. But they have managed to sign and integrate players from outside China better than almost all of their counterparts.
The club face another potentially turbulent period with Luiz Felipe Scolari on his way after three league titles and an AFC Champions League crown. A new coach -- rumoured to be Carlo Ancelotti -- is set to take the reins at the end of the season.
But the roles played by Gao and Zheng have been instrumental in maintaining a steady ship. With a winning culture deeply ingrained within the fabric of the club, the mission of knocking Guangzhou off their perch will remain as difficult next year as ever before.
Michael Church has written about Asian football for more than 20 years and mainly covers the Chinese game for ESPN FC. Twitter: @michaelrgchurch