Alain Perrin continued to experiment ahead of the Asian Cup as he made six changes to a side which played out an uneventful scoreless draw with Honduras in Xi’an. The teams managed just one shot on target a piece, but it was China who had the best two opportunities to break the deadlock late in the game. The first came in the 70th minute when, with goal apparently at his mercy, Wu Xi’s close range header hit the outside of the post. The second arrived courtesy of substitute Hao Junmin who did well to fashion a chance for himself and force a good save from Donis Escober.
The Hondurans’ starting line-up featured six members of their World Cup 2014 squad and so it was no surprise that they employed the same roughhouse tactics they became infamous for this summer. The Central Americans committed an impressive twenty-four fouls during the contest and, aside from the aforementioned late efforts, the hosts struggled to overcome their opponents’ overly physical approach.
Five of Perrin’s six alterations were a consequence of his promise not to start any players who will be involved in this Saturday’s FA Cup Final second leg between Shandong Luneng and Jiangsu Sainty. This meant that five starters in the 1-1 draw with New Zealand began the evening as substitutes. Shandong’s Wang Dalei and Hao Junmin were accompanied on the bench by Jiangsu’s Ren Hang, Sun Ke and Liu Jianye. However, due to a suspension for an unjust yellow card in the first leg, the latter trio’s teammate, Wu Xi, was able to start the game, and the midfielder was guilty of squandering his nation’s best opportunity to win the game.
The 28,162 in attendance had little to shout about in the first 70 minutes, but that changed when Wu Lei ran onto a Yu Hai header down the left touchline and showed great pace to skip away from a Victor Bernardez challenge. The 22-year-old, who was given the unfamiliar role of leading the line in Perrin’s 4-2-3-1, sent in a good cross from the by-line that was knocked back across goal by Zhang Linpeng. In typically hard-working fashion, Yu Hai had covered a lot of ground since starting the attack in his own half and was able to nod Zhang’s ball on to Wu Xi. With the goalkeeper out of position, all Wu had to do was hit the target with a four yard header, but the former Shanghai Shenhua man was unable to direct the ball to the correct side of the goal frame
Sixteen minutes later, Hao Junmin, who had been introduced on the hour mark, turned Wilfredo Barahona inside out before firing a powerful shot at Esober from around 10 yards out. The goalkeeper produced a great reflex save, but it was the only time the hosts were able to hit the target and gave more weight to Hao’s claim for a starting role at the Asian Cup in January. Following the winger’s excellent performance in the 1-1 draw with New Zealand, Perrin has already suggested that Hao is already guaranteed a squad place for the trip to Australia and, despite Zhang Wenzhao generally being preferred to him at club level, it looks increasingly difficult to justify leaving him out of the national team’s starting line-up.
Elsewhere, it is still hard to tell what Perrin’s preferred first eleven is. The disruption caused by these friendlies falling in the middle of a two-legged cup final full of internationals is largely unavoidable, but the Frenchman continued to tinker in areas which were unaffected by this Saturday’s clash in Nanjing.
Centre back Feng Xiaoting was rested, but Guangzhou Evergrande’s dominant presence in the backline continued as Mei Fang and Li Xuepeng came in to form the centre back pairing and goalkeeper Zeng Cheng took Wang Dalei’s place. The most surprising aspect of this was the decision to replace Friday’s right back Ren Hang with Zhang Linpeng instead of the inexperienced Mei Fang – a move that leaves Zhang’s apparent move into a central position in doubt.
Perrin favourites Cai Huikang and Zhang Chengdong unsurprisingly returned to the line-up, but the other big issue remains in the most advanced position on the pitch. Aside from his scintillating burst to set up Wu Xi’s chance, Wu Lei struggled in the position and is likely to return to a deeper role in Australia. With substitute Han Peng continuing to prove ineffective, it seems like Perrin has a straight choice between Gao Lin and (presuming he is fit by January) Yang Xu for the lone forward position.
On the face of it, a 0-0 draw with a team that has qualified for the last two World Cups and is above them in the FIFA World Rankings is not a bad result for China. However, the Hondurans’ 6-0 hammering at the hands of Guozu’s bitter rivals Japan just a few days earlier makes this result more difficult to accept. Perrin is still trying to figure out his best team, but with only three December friendlies against weak opposition before the squad heads off to Australia, he needs to get a move on.
China have lost just two in ten since the former Portsmouth manager took charge, but they need to show more consistency and the only way for that to be achieved is for his best team, whatever he perceives that to be, to play together frequently. Whether or not they get the opportunity to do that before boarding their Australia bound flights in January remains to be seen.
China Starting Line-Up (4-2-3-1 left to right): 1 – Zeng Cheng: 4 – Jiang Zhipeng (68′ 23 – Rao Weihui), 8 – Li Xuepeng (84′ 2 – Ren Hang), 26 – Mei Fang, 5 – Zhang Linpeng: 10 – Zheng Zhi, 3 – Cai Huikang: 21 – Yu Hai (76′ 16 – Sun Ke), 15 – Wu Xi (80′ 9 – Han Peng), 17 – Zhang Chengdong (60′ 11 – Hao Junmin): 19 – Wu Lei
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