The Dalian Sports Center Stadium in Dalian, northeast China's Liaoning province. [Photo/Xinhua] With the 2021 Chinese Super League season expected to continue with the pandemic-conscious 'bubble' model used last term, Guangzhou and Shanghai are thought to be among the leading candidates vying for lucrative hosting duties. According to reports, the Guangzhou Football Association on Tuesday officially submitted an application for the capital of Guangdong province to stage the action. Home to eight-time CSL champion Guangzhou Evergrande and newly renamed Guangzhou City (formerly Guangzhou R&F), the southern metropolis boasts a rich soccer tradition and high-quality infrastructure. The Chinese Football Association requires that host cities offer at least four match stadiums, and one additional venue as backup. Training facilities should include eight pitches, and another two in reserve. Those are all prerequisites that Shanghai can meet, with the city also believed to be keen to host the 2021 campaign. Just like Guangzhou, it is home to two topflight clubs－Shanghai SIPG and Shanghai Shenhua. The CFA last week told clubs it plans to kick off the new season on March 11, with the second-tier China League One following on March 17.However, amid the ongoing uncertainties of the COVID-19 pandemic, those start dates are not set in stone. Coronavirus concerns last year saw the CSL kickoff postponed from February until July, with the usual home-and-away schedule scrapped in favor of a shortened, tournament-style format. The first phase of matches was played behind closed doors, with the 16 teams split into two groups based in Suzhou, Jiangsu province and Dalian, Liaoning province. Based on the first-phase results, teams then entered a championship group and a relegation group to decide the final standings. "Speaking of next season, based on the current situation of the pandemic, I personally think we will still use the tournament style next season," CFA president Chen Xuyuan told China Central Television in November. "If we return to the home-and-away format, the league could face great risk if there are new cases reported in the home cities of the clubs. "We now have management experience to run the tournament-style format and we can guarantee the smoothness of the season. There will also be some changes if we decide to keep using the tournament style in 2021." According to Xinhua, Dalian is unlikely to resume hosting duties for the new season despite doing an excellent job last term. The northern city's bitterly cold winter weather extends into March, while the return of COVID-19 cases there have also lowered its chances of staging league matches. Suzhou, on the other hand, remains a favorable choice, given its experience of last season and the city's relatively warmer weather in March－also an advantage for Shanghai and Guangzhou. The latter two cities are thought to have missed out as 2020 hosts because of epidemic-prevention fears over their large populations (24 million and 15 million respectively). Safety will again be the top priority this season, with the smooth operation of the bubbles in Dalian and Suzhou attributed to the strict epidemic-prevention methods employed by the CFA. Players, coaches and league staff were required to stay in designated areas with no interaction with the outside world, while frequent coronavirus antibody and nucleic acid tests were conducted. The CFA also warned that any lockdown violations could result in players being expelled from the competition for the remainder of the season. In the second half of last term, limited numbers of fans were allowed back into the stands, although spectators still needed to undergo a complex health-screening process that included nucleic acid tests to gain admittance. It's unclear if the CSL will open matches to fans at the beginning of the 2021 season, but with some regions in China battling small clusters of coronavirus cases in recent weeks, it seems certain the league will err on the side of caution. "We created the model of establishing the blue zone and green zone, and we let the core members to stay in the lockdown area, which effectively stopped the spread of the virus. Many leagues are learning this experience from us, and we're proud of it," Liu Yi, secretary-general of the CFA, told People's Daily. While thankful to be safe inside the bio-secure zones, being away from family and friends for months proved challenging for some. Dalian Pro head coach Rafa Benitez said he found it difficult to maintain his players' morale during the long lockdown, and it seems certain that those kinds of issues are unavoidable if a similarly stringent regulations are in place again.