As the women have just wrapped up their game against a difficult Japanese side on home soil at the E-1 Championship, the men begin their quest for two straight tournament victories against a Chinese side who beat a full-strength Korea earlier in March. For more information on the Chinese, we asked good friend Jamie McIlroy some questions on their squad and prospects. Follow Jamie’s work at wildeastfootball.org, the go-to site for Chinese football news and analysis.
China have missed out on the World Cup again, briefly what was the reaction/is the current mood surrounding soccer in the country and this national team specifically? Is there any hype?
I wouldn’t say there’s a great deal of hype, per se, but ther was certainly a sense in the latter phases of World Cup qualification that the national team was really improving under Lippi. They followed up the 1-0 win over South Korea last March with a narrow defeat in Iran, an unfortunate draw with Syria and wins against Uzbekistan and Qatar. I think there was a strong element of frustration that they hadn’t hired Lippi sooner as results and performances greatly improved under him and, with South Korea and Uzbekistan struggling for consistency, China might have had a genuine shot at getting through if they hadn’t had Gao Hongbo in charge for the first four games of qualification.
That being said, a 2-0 defeat to Serbia and 4-0 hammering by Colombia in the last round of friendlies brought more optimistic supporters back down to earth. Although the performances in those games weren’t actually too bad, it showed where China realistically are in the international pecking order.
How is Marcelo Lippi treating the competition? Experimentation? Full strength? A mix of both?
It’s largely an experimental squad with a few veterans in there to balance things out. Only five outfield players have more than 20 caps and three of those – Yu Dabao, Wu Xi and Zhao Xuri – have made limited international appearances over the last season because they’ve either been injured or, in the case of Zhao Xuri, only recently returned to the international fold after a rediscvery of form.
The team is not as young as some would have liked with only six players born in 1995 or later, but that’s more an indication of the lack of quality available in that generation rather than Lippi’s unwillingness to use youngsters. Instead, there’s a big crop of guys aged between 24 and 32 who have very limited international experience.
What player(s) should Korea look out for in the tie, in addition to the usual threats?
Well, you’ll know all about Yu Dabao who scored the winner against South Korea last March and he’s back in the national team set-up after missing much of the second half of the season through injury. With well known names Wu Lei, Gao Lin, Feng Xiaoting and Zheng Zhi all absent, there aren’t too many players expected to make an impact, but there are a few who could use this competition to make a mark.
Uncapped 22-year-old attacker Wei Shihao had some spectacular moments for Shanghai SIPG this season and expectations would undoubtedly go into overdrive if he could replicate that on an international level. Guangzhou Evergrande winger Zheng Long has struggled for game time this season, but could make a big impact if he can recapture his 2016 club form, while I’ve been impressed by 29-year-old Hebei CFFC midfielder Yin Hongbo over the last few seasons and hope he can use this tournament as a springboard to solidify his place in the national team set up for the next couple of years.
Defensively, 22-year-old right-back Deng Hanwen was playing in the second tier with Beijing Renhe this year but still earned his first caps and showed the sort of threat he can offer going forward with two cracking goals against in a friendly against the Philippines in June. Guangzhou Evergrande defender Zhang Linpeng is also worth a mention as this tournament is likely going to be used as an attempt at completing his long anticipated conversion from right-back to centre-back. Zhang, who will captain the squad, is a massive star in China and would be widly considered to be the “best” player in this squad, although he’s never fully convinced in the middle of the defence. Latest news suggests Zhang might not be fit for the first game, though, and that would be a big blow to China’s back line.
How do you expect the match to play out? Will China look to counter? Come out all guns blazing?
China certainly won’t come out all guns blazing and with such a relatively inexperienced squad I’d imagine Lippi will approach this game fairly cautiously. Lippi started making defensive minded adjustments during the first half in the 4-0 defeat to Colombia and will likely set up in a defensive-minded 433, though three centre-backs is also a possibility.
Given that China beat Korea 1-0 in WCQ earlier this year, is there a sense of confidence in the Chinese camp to once again banish Gonghanzeung?
Given the absence of so many big names, there’s unlikely to be too much confidence of achieving another victory but, at the same time, China don’t play with the same levels of fear they did before Lippi took over and are unlikely to be overwhelmed by what has traditionally been a superior opponent. I think it’s fair to say that China will be confident of being competitive which they weren’t when these two sides met in the 2015 addition of this tournament.
Lineup prediction // final thoughts // score prediction (if you dare!)
The line-up is really hard to predict, so I’ll go with the team I’d like to see given the players available and the desire to bring through some less experienced talents while remaining competitive:
Deng Hanwen, Zhang Linpeng (Li Xuepeng if Zhang’s not fit), Liu Yiming, Zheng Zheng
Yin Hongbo, Zhao Xuri, Liao Lisheng
Wei Shihao, Yu Dabao, Zheng Long
While patriotic football fans will think otherwise, the result of this game is incidental compared to the performance and I’ll predict China to put on a decent display culminating in a 2-1 defeat. It’s really hard to say, though, and a lot of more long-sighted fans are just happy to see China actually use this tournament for development rather than picking a full strength team with the solitary short term aim of getting one over on the regional rivals.