China continued to show a worrying lack of cutting edge as they toiled to a goalless draw against Palestine in their final warm-up game before departing for next month’s Asian Cup in Australia.
Having beaten lowly Kyrgyzstan in two unofficial warm-up matches in the last eight days, the game against Palestine was taken more seriously and has finally given some definitive insight into Alain Perrin’s preferred line-up in Australia.
Unfortunately, as the game unfolded, it became increasingly apparent where the Frenchman’s biggest problem lies. Despite dominating almost every facet of the game against their unfancied opponents, they failed to top them in the one area that really counts – goals scored.
The home side’s 57% possession doe not accurately reflect how much they controlled the game, played in Chengzhou, Hunan, and this is better demonstrated by their success in restricting Palestine to just two shots with none on target. In response, China managed fourteen attempts of their own with three on target, but this illustrates their failure to break down a stubborn side that packed the middle of the field and limited the Chinese to launching attacks down the flanks. This may have been an effective tactic had those on the receiving end taken their opportunities, Wu Xi, Wu Lei, Jiang Zhipeng and Gao Lin all failing to sore when the ball fell to them in favourable positions falling balls played from wide areas. Meanwhile, Zheng Zhi was unlucky to only strike a post when a cleared cross fell to him just outside the area.
In the 7th minute a well won Yang Xu knock down allowed Wu Lei to run into a wide area and cut the ball across to Wu Xi who was arriving late into the box from the midfield. Unfortunately, the Jiangsu Sainty man’s Lampard-esque timing was not matched by a snatched left-foot finish that sailed some way over the bar. Just a minute later, right back Zhang Chengdong linked up well with Hao Junmin before picking out Wu Lei with an accurate cross. The Shanghai SIPG forward rose well to meet the ball, but was unable to get any power in a header which bounced gently into goalkeeper Ramzi Saleh’s hands. After those dangerous opening ten minutes, the Palestinians were able to hold off a potential onslaught until the half hour mark when Yu Hanchao’s shot from a Wu Xi cutback was deflected wide by an opposition defender.
In the early phases of the second half, left back Jiang Zhipeng delivered a couple of dangerous crosses that were just a touch short of being diverted into the back of the net, but it was in the 58th minute when China came closest to scoring. Yu Hanchao’s cross from the right was headed away by Abelatif Bahdari only to drop to Zheng Zhi just outside the area. As New Zealand can attest to, the former Celtic midfielder is dangerous from that range, but his low effort hit the post on this occasion with Saleh well beaten.
While that may have been the closest China came to hitting the back of the net, their best opportunity fell to Jiang Zhipeng midway through the second half. Yang Xu chipped a delicate cutback from the byline which deflected off of a defender and left Saleh in no man’s land. The ball dropped kindly to Jiang, but the Guangzhou R&F man lashed it wildly into the stands when a more finessed touch would have been adequate to guide the ball into the back of the net. Six minutes later, substitute right back Ji Xiang’s cross found Gao Lin in space on the edge of the six yard box, but the four time Super League winner’s weak header was comfortably gathered by a grateful Saleh.
China continued to press, but the breakthrough was not forthcoming and they had to settle with a draw against a side which has already lost to two of their Asian Cup group stage opponents – Saudi Arabia and Uzbekistan – in recent months. There are certainly some positives to be taken from this game – not least a fourth consecutive clean sheet – but without more productivity in the final third, it is hard to imagine China defeating either the Saudi’s or Uzbeks in Australia.
Full backs Zhang Chengdong and Jiang Zhipeng got forward very well and this was facilitated by Zheng Zhi dropping in between the two centre backs when in possession. The downside is, that the mutation into a 3-4-3 while on the ball leaves China light in midfield and, if the forwards are unable to convert the numerous chances handed to them from out wide, there is no plan B which allows the Chinese to create openings by playing through the middle. In a game two months ago against a physically overmatched Thailand side, China played 37 crosses and managed just one goal as a direct consequence.
The fullbacks and attacking widemen Hao Junmin, Yu Hanchao and Sun Ke are generally holding up their end of the bargain, but those playing down the middle are not. With the final 23-man squad just announced and a fairly clear picture of January’s staring line-up emerging, the likes of Wu Lei, Wu Xi, Yang Xu and Gao Lin are going to have to step up their performances if they are to drag their country through the Asian Cup’s group stages for the first time since 2004.
Starting Line-up (4-2-3-1 listed from right to left): 25 – Wang Dalei: 17 – Zhang Chengdong (14 – Ji Xiang 72’), 5 – Zhang Linpeng, 2 – Ren Hang, 4 – Jiang Zhipeng (8 – Li Xuepeng): 10 – Zheng Zhi, 15 – Wu Xi (16 – Sun Ke 62’): 11 – Hao Junmin, 19 – Wu Lei, 20 – Yu Hanchao (18 – Gao Lin 62’): 9 – Yang Xu (23 – Liu Binbin 79’)
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