The coronavirus-hit Chinese Super League title race will be decided on Thursday after Fabio Cannavaro's Guangzhou Evergrande were held 0-0 by Jiangsu Suning in the first leg of the championship final.
In a bad-tempered encounter Sunday in front of several thousand fans in Suzhou, Brazilian international Paulinho squandered one of the few clear opportunities as reigning champions Evergrande struggled to break down Suning.
Veteran Evergrande captain Zheng Zhi went looking for a penalty in the 11th minute and referee Shi Zhenlu initially gave the spot-kick, but overturned his own decision after consulting the video assistant referee (VAR).
A scuffle then broke out and Evergrande attacker Wei Shihao was booked after raising his hands.
Suning's Gao Tianyi was yellow-carded a short time later for going through the back of former Barcelona star Paulinho.
The 32-year-old midfielder, who took the captain's armband when Zheng went off injured, had the best chance of the first half but pulled his effort wide from close range in injury time.
Suning, who have never won the CSL, failed to muster a shot on or off target in the first period.
They were slightly more ambitious at the start of the second half, but again Cannavaro's side looked the more threatening, without really troubling Suning stopper Gu Chao.
Suning's Romanian coach Cosmin Olaroiu admitted that the eight-time CSL champions "dominated".
"In the second half, they didn't create anything big, but at the same time we didn't create too much in attack," he said.
"It's one game now, anything can happen."
The two teams will go again in Thursday's decisive second leg, the culmination of a season which began five months late and behind closed doors because of the pandemic.
As part of the changes for this campaign, there is a two-leg championship decider.
The Chinese Football Association expected about 7,000 fans to attend each leg on neutral territory in Suzhou, having allowed a capped number of spectators in recent weeks.