Zheng Zhi and Wu Lei scored early goals and China held on against a late rally to defeat Paraguay 2-1 in Changsha, Hunan. Following a comfortable win against a weak Thailand in Wuhan on Friday night, Alain Perrin’s team made the short trip south to face a much tougher test.
Zheng Zhi 9′(pen)
Wu Lei 18′
However, any anxiety that fans may have had about the upgrade in opponents was quickly dispelled when they found their side 2-0 up within the first eighteen minutes. Zheng’s 9th minute penalty was followed by a close range Wu tap-in nine minutes later. Nestor Ortigoza pulled one back for the South Americans after 81 minutes, but China came through a nervy final period to register a second straight win and go a fourth game unbeaten.
Although the home side started brightly with slick, confident passing, the momentum of the first-half hinged on a few early minutes which swung the game in their favour. After just six minutes, a neat through-ball left the Chinese defence stationary and Paraguayan legend Roque Santa Cruz one on one with Wang Dalei. Fortunately for China, the Shandong Luneng stopper reacted quickly and rushed off his line to deny the former Manchester City and Blackburn forward the opportunity to extend his all-time national goal scoring record.
It was an excellent save from Wang and just two minutes later, Sun Ke was clumsily tripped in the box while collecting a cross that had drifted over Yang Xu. Captain Zheng Zhi stepped up to slip the ball into the bottom right-hand corner and celebrate his 78th international cap with a goal.
This helped settle a side that featured significant changes from the one which took the field against Thailand. That game’s goal scoring substitutes Sun Ke and Yang Xu were rewarded with a place in the starting line-up along with charismatic goalkeeper Wang Dalei and old stalwart Zheng Zhi. While Sun and Yang were straight swaps for Yu Hai and Han Peng, respectively, Zheng’s introduction as defensive midfielder caused significant upheaval in the line-up. This pushed Wu Xi into a more advanced role and saw Wu Lei drift out to the right. Consequently, Zhang Chengdong moved back to right-back with Zhang Linpeng taking a central role in place of dropped teammate, Li Xuepeng.
The changes seemed to be working when just nine minutes after the opener, Wu Lei doubled the home team’s tally. Left-back, Ren Hang linked up well with Jiangsu Sainty teammate Sun Ke before whipping in a left-wing cross which cleared Wu Xi and the physically disruptive Yang Xu to find the Shanghai Dongya attacker unmarked at the back post. The 22 year-old was ecstatic to be gifted his fourth international goal, but Paraguay coach, Vitor Genes, must have been furious with his defenders’ marking and the slow reactions of his goalkeeper.
The second goal put China in the ascendency, but they were reminded of how dangerous Santa Cruz can still be when, seemingly out of nothing, he exploded past Zhang Linpeng with a lightening quick turn just inside the penalty before firing powerfully into the side-netting. That opportunity signalled the end of China’s best period of play and saw the game descend into a more disjointed and less enjoyable affair. The Red and White’s had the better of it, but there were few opportunities for either team to add to their scores before the break.
At half-time, the visitors introduced four substitutes, and this upheaval did little to restore the flow of the game. China, meanwhile, brought on young right-back Mei Fang in place of Wu Xi to allow a struggling Zhang Chengdong to return to a more advanced position. It wasn’t until the 62nd minute that the game started to show some signs of life when a confrontation between Zhang Chengdong and amped up half-time substitute Gustavo Gomez saw the Guo’an player fall down while dramatically clutching his face. Replays showed it to be an embarrassing overreaction to a chest bump and it infuriated the South Americans. The referee booked both Zhang and Gomez, but the incident seemed to inspire Paraguay to play with a greater intensity in the final half hour.
Just two minutes after the bookings, Wang Dalei was forced into an incredible close range save from Jorge Rojas, that becomes no less admirable with the retrospective knowledge that the assistant referee had already raised the offside flag for a marginal infringement. Both sides had further chances, but Wang showed his quality again in with a superb double save in the 79th minute. First, he pushed out a close range effort with his hands only to save the follow-up with an outstretched foot. That occurred just after Perrin made a triple substitution and a minute later he made another change – their sixth of the match – when Zhang Jiaqi came on for Zheng Zhi.
It was clear that the new additions hadn’t settled in when, in the 81st minute, a Paraguayan corner was knocked on to Ortigoza and Gomez who were both left free to head in unmarked at the back post. It was Ortigoza who was credited with the goal, but Gomez could just has easily have nodded in had his teammate not had similar ambitions. Perrin was furious on the sidelines and the Frenchman’s team were under great pressure for the last ten minutes of the game – particularly from young forward Cecilio Domingues who gave the Chinese defence a lot of trouble and had two decent chances to equalise before the final whistle.
Although Paraguay probably deserved a draw based on their late surge, a victory over opposition of this calibre should still be considered a very good result. This may not be the same overachieving Paraguay side that took Spain to the limit in the 2010 World Cup quarter-final before reaching the final of the Copa America a year later, but it is still a nation with a strong footballing pedigree and this marks China’s first victory over South American opposition since a 1-0 win over Uruguay back in 2000.
However you view international friendlies, and there are good arguments to suggest they mean absolutely nothing, this victory is an achievement for China and fans have every right to be happy with this result. Guozu will play six further friendlies before their Asian Cup campaign kicks off in Brisbane on January 10th. Those games are against New Zealand, Honduras, Kyrgyzstan (twice) Palestine and Oman. With the possible exception of the violent Central Americans, those are opponents that China will be expected to beat, and so there will be little further opportunity to come through such a stern test before taking on Saudi Arabia in their opening group game. If the last encounter went some small way to dealing with the wrongs of the past (last year’s 5-1 loss to Thailand), it can only be hoped that this victory will help the Chinese National Team look a little more optimistically to the future.
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