World Cup qualifying is upon us, and as we have for previous games (vs Qatar, vs Iran, vs Uzbekistan, vs Canada) we’re teaming up with other bloggers and websites for a more in-depth look at our opposition. This time, we’re teaming up with Jamie McIlroy of wildeastfootball.net. Their site’s work has appeared in various international publications, including the Guardian, and they also run the Chinese Football Podcast (iTunes). Follow them on Twitter @wildeastfootbal.
Tim questions Jamie on China
- China’s World Cup qualifying phase certainly has not gone as supporters would have hoped. Why is that? What’s a reasonable best case scenario for the Chinese now?
The obvious reason that the qualifying hasn’t gone as supporters would have hoped is because of the unrealistic expectations raised by qualifying for the final phase. China were very poor in the first round of qualifying where two scoreless draws with Hong Kong and a limp 1-0 defeat away to Qatar cost manager Alain Perrin his job. Gao Hongbo took over and engineered a 2-0 win over an unmotivated Qatar reserve side that had already qualified, while North Korea fell apart in the Philippines to allow the Chinese to sneak through as best runners-up.
The result over Qatar prompted a lot of baseless optimism and talk of booking trips to Russia, but the truth is that China are pretty close to where most rational fans would expect them to be. With the obvious exception of the 1-0 home loss to Syria, none of their results have come as a surprise.
A reasonable best case scenario for China now would probably be a fourth place finish in the group. They’ve got no chance of catching the top three, but could overtake the Syrians and Qataris if they continue the improvement they showed during Lippi’s first game in charge at home to Qatar.
- Obviously political tensions are high after all the drama surrounding THAAD and China’s retaliation. The CFA has refused to allow the Korean supporters group to travel on private planes with the team (as is the norm) and many are worried about crowd violence between the 50 away supporters who will be allowed to make the trip and the many thousands in Changsha. Is Korean media sensationalizing? How high are tensions back home? Does it give the Chinese troops more motivation to win?
Unfortunately, I don’t think the Korean media is sensationalizing too much. Anti-Korean feeling is pretty strong at the moment and the whole THAAD thing has been well whipped-up by both social and conventional media. There are certainly many Chinese fans who are going to view this game through a nationalist lens and that could lead to expressions of anger in and around the stadium.
That being said, the authorities take security very seriously on this type of occasion and it’s unlikely the Korean fans in attendance will be in any direct danger. The government here may be happy to ride the anti-Korean sentiment, but they won’t want it to express itself in any out of control expressions of violence so the visiting fans should be well protected. There’s a small danger that things could get really out of control like they did when riots broke out following the defeat to Japan in the 2004 Asian Cup final, but I don’t think there’s enough at stake in this game for that to happen.
I suppose the recent geopolitical situation may give the Chinese players a little added motivation, but it will also add pressure because of the extra intensity of the fans. The Chinese national team hasn’t coped well under pressure in recent years, so it might be better for them if this was a regular game without any additional nationalist sentiment added.
- Marcelo Lippi vs Uli Stielike. Most Korean fans will tell you that on a managerial level it’s a total mismatch. How will Lippi come into play in this game?
Despite the disappointing 0-0 scoreline, there was a notable improvement in performance during Lippi’s first game at home to Qatar back in November. He had the team playing in the same 4-3-3 formation he utilized so successfully at Guangzhou Evergrande, there were no strange team selections like there were under predecessor Gao Hongbo and the players seemed to have a level of confidence in their play that they hadn’t shown since the 2015 Asian Cup. There were some who were underwhelmed by Lippi’s first match in charge by making inappropriate comparisons to the 2-0 win over Qatar the year before, while overlooking the massive caveats hanging over that match which are highlighted above. There also remained the serious issue of goal scoring, but Lippi is a manager, not a miracle worker, and can’t magic up an international quality striker out of thin air.
So, yes, Lippi will come in to play in this game in the sense that he will pick the right players and have them playing in a well-organized and coherent manner. The issue is whether he can make enough of a difference to alter the outcome and that will be addressed below.
- A couple key players to look out for?
It seems that you’re automatically obliged to mention Wu Lei whenever the subject of Chinese players to watch comes up, but the Shanghai SIPG attacker has consistently failed to transfer his domestic form on to the international stage and so it would be overly optimistic to point to him.
He may have his detractors, but Zheng Zhi consistently keeps proving himself to be China’s most important midfielder by showing the calmness and composure on the ball that some of his talented teammates lack. Zheng was in and out of the national team under Perrin and Gao, but he will be a key part of Lippi’s plans and will need to have a good game if China have any hope of getting a result.
19-year-old Zhang Yuning is China’s latest striking hope and he no doubt has a great deal of potential, but is still to raw to have a real impact at this level. The central defensive partnership of Feng Xiaoting and Zhang Linpeng is a good one and will be tough to break down as long as they don’t let the pressure get to them.
- What’s China’s greatest strength right now? Their greatest weakness?
Despite the 3-2 loss in Seoul last year, China’s greatest strength remains that they are tough to break down and don’t generally concede many goals. A pair of solid centre backs, a good goalkeeper in the shape of either Zeng Cheng or Wang Dalei, and a disciplined midfield three led by Zheng Zhi means they are not easy to score against as long as they maintain their concentration.
That brings us on to the biggest weakness, though, which remains mentality in big games that are thwart with pressure and feature an impatient home crowd. The 0-0 draw at home to Hong Kong in 2015 was a prime example of that as the side dominated the opening 45 minutes but panicked in the second half and slowly unraveled. Last year’s 1-0 defeat to Syria was also a low point which saw them flounder after failing to break down a stubborn side after 45 minutes. In theory, this game would not be such an issue with World Cup qualification already down the tubes and an opponent generally accepted to be superior, but the political situation gives this game an extra importance which might see this old problem return.
Goal scoring is obviously another major issue as China have failed to score in any of their last four qualifiers since staging their surprising fightback in Seoul last September and there is no obvious sign of that situation improving.
- Lineup prediction (formation) and score line prediction?
The starting line-up should look something like this:
Zhao Mingjian, Feng Xiaoting, Zhang Linpeng, Ren Hang
Hao Junmin, Zheng Zhi, Huang Bowen
Zhang Xizhe, Wu Lei, Gao Lin
Jiang Zhipeng could start at left-back if Lippi wants to take a more attacking approach, while Wu Xi could get the nod in midfield ahead of Hao Junmin. It seems unlikely that Zhang Yuning will start at centre forward, meaning we may have to see Wu Lei toil in the role again, but the 19-year-old could be introduced in the second half to offer more of a physical presence.
I’m going to go for a very optimistic 1-1 draw here, but I could just as easily see the Chinese players bottling it and getting beaten by a couple of goals.
Jamie questions Tim on Korea
- How seriously do Korean fans actually take China as an opponent? There were stories doing the rounds here last September that Korean fans didn’t think it was worth attending the game as the Chinese team were pushovers. Was there much truth in that and how seriously will the Korean supporters be taking this game given the recent political tensions between the two countries?
Since I don’t personally live in Korea I can’t really confirm that some fans didn’t attend the game for those reasons. I mean, on one hand you’ve got to take note that more than 50,000 people were in attendance for that China qualifier (the only time that many people have showed up this cycle) but on the other hand, I’d certainly have to agree that there is a certain condescension towards the Chinese national team. That probably stems from the fact that Korea have only lost to China once in the past … years.
Certainly there is some nationalistic sentiment bubbling in Korea but I wouldn’t say it’s too out of the norm. A sizeable portion of the Korean population oppose the deployment of THAAD anyways, and I’d think Korean society in general is swelling more with pride after the President’s impeachment rather than insulting the Chinese for meddling in our affairs.
Simply put, Korean soccer supporters will be taking this game quite seriously, but the political tensions are only a part of the hype leading up to the encounter. That being said, a defeat would be deeply humiliating.
- Korea sit in second in the group, but qualifying hasn’t gone as smoothly as most fans would have anticipated with the struggles against Uzbekistan, draw with Syria and loss to Iran. Is there any real danger that Korea will drop out of the automatic qualification places down into third, or has this just been a blip on what will turn out to be another relatively straightforward qualification?
Korea has consistently qualified for the World Cup, but not always by virtue of playing consistently well. Though many portray the team as an Asian powerhouse, the fact is the KNT has been slowly declining and the other nations have been catching up. In that respect, the Uzbekistan performance wasn’t a surprising one – it was never going to be a walk in the park.
Of course, Korean sides have also traditionally struggled with teams that are organized defensively and set-up in a shape that is hard to break down. The Olympic team’s quarter-final exit to Honduras, despite having topped a group with Mexico and Germany, is a notable example. As are the two games against Syria and Iran. So again, in that respect, though neither of those results were acceptable, they certainly had always been reasonable possibilities.
I’m tempted to say that there is no danger, that Korea will qualify behind Iran and we’ll go to another World Cup. In 2014, the team avoided the one really bad result that could unravel the team’s ever-thinning luck. We’re in the same situation again this year – nothing is guaranteed and nothing should be taken for granted.
- Son Heung-min is suspended for the game in China. He seems to have been absolutely vital in Korea’s qualifying campaign so far and is probably the best known active Korean player in the world at the moment. How big an impact will his absence make to Korea’s performance (I recall he missed the 0-0 draw with Syria earlier in qualifying) and who will step up to try and fill his shoes in attack?
Son’s absence is a big deal. For all his shortcomings, the national team just doesn’t have another player like him. At his best, he’s quick, direct and dynamic, and even if his national team performances have been a little bit muted (given Korea’s infernally slow build-up style) he certainly brings that game-changing star factor to a team largely composed of CSL centre-backs, mostly average domestic players and European misfits.
The graveness of his absence is multiplied by Crystal Palace’s Lee Chung-yong’s exclusion from the selection. Hence, the national team won’t be able to start any of their first choice wide midfielders (and even the second choice on the right, the fabulous, dynamic Lee Jae-sung, is injured).
I’d expect Nam Tae-hee (Lekhwiya) or Ji Dong-won (Augsburg) to step into both of the flanks. Neither of them are Son, but both have put in decent shifts in the various roles they’ve played for the national team of late. The problem may be that both players are more comfortable centrally, which makes them an odd fit on the flanks.
- Who are South Korea’s key players in this game? There will be some familiar names to fans of both the Chinese and European game, but are there any domestic based players to watch out for?
Running the risk of repeating myself here – Nam and Ji will most likely be starting this encounter and both will need to bring their best against a Chinese defense which, as you mentioned, isn’t necessarily as porous as we’d like to believe. Team captain Ki Sung-yueng has just returned from injury and it will be interesting to see if he can dictate play effectively despite having only played one competitive game for Swansea since returning back to full health.
On the domestic end, there are only three positions where you’d expect K League-based players to start. Left-back Kim Jin-su has been putting in solid, forward-going performances for Jeonbuk upon his return from Hoffenheim in the Bundesliga ; his teammates, Lee Yong and Choi Chulsoon, can both play right-back. That then leaves the forwards – Busan’s Lee Jeong-hyeop is on a bit of a tear, with three goals in three games since the start of the new season, though he and Jeonbuk’s towering centre forward Kim Shin-wook have both been chastised for being quite uninspiring attacking options. Nonetheless, the former provides work rate and mobility while the latter is a giant head to aim at in desperate times – and it’s worked, with Kim’s giant forehead being involved in both of Korea’s goals in their comeback against the Uzbeks last November.
- What are South Korea’s biggest strengths and weaknesses in this match? Most would make the visitors favourites for this match but are there any serious issues that China can exploit?
Our biggest strength? Well… I guess we have better players. It sounds super simplistic and unintelligent but it’s the best thing I can think of. As of right now, Korean footballers are still technically superior to Chinese footballers. But this team really isn’t much to write home about. If I try to look at the glass half-full, I guess you could say that the team’s newfound ability to fightback (2-1 down to Qatar, 3-2 win; 1-0 down to Uzbekistan, 2-1 win) is a positive change.
Our glaring weakness is our central defense. Hong Jeong-ho, Kim Ki-hee and Jang Hyun-soo are all good for an error a game, and I don’t necessarily disagree with the popular assertion that their game is stagnating in the CSL. Furthermore, Stielike’s tendency to mix-and-match a new centre-back pairing with brand-new full-backs really does nothing to ameliorate cohesiveness among the back line. If China is able to play a bit more in this game and create a few, thoughtful opportunities, I can easily see the KNT conceding again.
Oh also, we can’t counter-attack for the life of us. It’s been a problem for us. Maddening.
- What will be the probable line-up and what do you predict the score will be?
Lee Yong, Kim Ki-hee, Hong Jeong-ho, Kim Jin-su
Ji Dong-won, Ki Sung-yueng, Koo Ja-cheol, Nam Tae-hee
Six points are crucial for the Korean national team in this break – with Syria next, this is the break where (no disrespect) the team faces the theoretically easier opponents. But our four centrally-inclined midfielders and toothless attack has me worrying. We’ll go for a 2-1 Korean win, but I’m a bit more nervous about this Hanjoongjeon (Korea-China game) than I probably ever have been about a game between our two nations.
Jamie Mcilroy is a writer for wildeastfootball.net which is the premier English language source for Chinese football news and is now a part of the Guardian’s Sport Network. Jamie frequently writes on the Chinese national team and has a seemingly irrational passion for China League One thanks to the struggles of his local side Wuhan Zall. No Twitter, but you contact Jamie via the website or directly at firstname.lastname@example.org