A first-half Sun Ke brace was enough to give China maximum points from the Asian Cup group stage for the first time in their history, but some gloss was taken off the victory by a sloppy second half performance.
With Guozu already safely through to the quarter-finals as group winners, there was little to play for against a North Korean side that had been eliminated following a 4-1 hammering at the hands of Saudi Arabia, and the course of the first-half seemed to confirm the two teams’ polar positions in group B. However, the roles were reversed in the second period, and China were somewhat fortunate to leave Canberra with their 100% record in tact.
ASIAN CUP GROUP BChina 2
Sun Ke 1′, 42′
North Korea 1
Gao Lin 56′ (o.g.)
It took just 44 seconds for Sun to take advantage of some dreadful defending and convert Mei Fang’s long, diagonal ball. The North Koreans offered little in the way of a response and Sun was the beneficiary of more sloppy work from the opposition backline when he was able to head in Jiang Zhipeng’s cross in the 42nd minute.
In a game that lacked intensity, there seemed little chance of a Korean revival, but they were offered a lifeline eight minutes into the second half when a Zhang Linpeng goalline clearance cannoned off the hip of Gao Lin and back into the Chinese net.
The poor defending in the build up to the goal was symptomatic of a forgettable second-half display from Alain Perrin’s men, and they were lucky to finish the game in the lead after giving up a litany of chances to their rejuvenated opponents. A combination of poor finishing, Wang Dalei and the crossbar prevnted the Koreans getting an equaliser, and the full time whistle was met with a mixture of celebration and relief among the Chinese fans who made up the majority of the 18,000 in attendance at the Canberra Stadium.
Good To Be Back: Hao Junmin returned to the starting line-up after starting on the bench against Uzbekistan
Australia’s loss to South Korea the day before meant that the tournament hosts were confirmed as China’s quarter-final opponents and, with such a difficult game on the horizon, it was somewhat of a surprise that Perrin only made three changes from the team that started the 2-1 victory over Uzbekistan four days earlier. Sun Ke, Hao Junmin and Cai Huikang were brought in to replace Wu Lei, Wu Xi and the suspended Ren Hang. There was also a change in formation when, having played five at the back against the Uzbeks, Perrin reverted back to the 4-2-3-1 which led his side to a 1-0 win over Saudi Arabia.
The changes paid immediate dividends when Mei Fang spotted Sun Ke running into the penalty area from the right-wing. The Guzngzhou Evergrande defender launched a speculative crossfield ball from his own half and was probably quite surprised that it actually reached his teammate after North Korea’s centre backs conspired to make an absolute hash of clearing it.
Minute Men: China celebrate Sun Ke’s early goal
First Jang Kuk-chol failed to get off his feet in an effort to head it away and then Jang-Song-hyok watched the ball bounce over him and into the path of the grateful Sun. Although there was an element of fortune in the ball reaching him, the Jiangsu Sainty winger provided a cool finish and has written his name into the history books with China’s fastest goal in Asian Cup history.
After dominating the early phases of the game, China were almost rewarded with a second when an excellent passing move led to Sun slightly overhitting a final ball to Yu Hai when the Guizhou Renhe man had the goal at his mercy. The interchange of passes that led to that chance gave a sign of China’s potential but the game lulled after that as neither side appeared overly eager to press the opposition.
It took half an hour for Jo Tong-sop’s men to produce a shot when O Hyok-choi fired over from 20 yards and their failure to get into the game was emphasised in the 35th minute when midfielder Pak Song-chol was replaced by Han Song-hyok for tactical reasons. Four minutes later, the Koreans had their best chance of the half when a neat chipped throughball from O Hyok-choi was hooked over by Jong Il-gwan from close range.
Three And Easy: Sun Ke heads in his third goal of the tournament
The Rimyongsu forward should have done better, and his miss was punished three minutes later when Sun headed in his third goal of the tournament. Left back Jiang Zhipeng had an excellent first-half attacking down the wing and he was given yet another opportunity to whip in a good cross when Hao Junmin set him free with a well-weighted pass.
The Guangzhou R&F man had an eternity to pick his cross and he played a dangerous looking ball between the goalkeeper and the backline. With no Chinese forwards attacking the ball, the emphasis was either on the goalkeeper to come and claim or a defender to head clear, but neither of these things happened and Sun was allowed a free header at the far post that he gratefully forced into the net.
A minute before the break, Yu Hai almost put the game beyond the North Koreans reach when he chipped over goalkeeper Ri-Myong-guk from close range. Unfortunately for China, Jon-Kwang-ik was in the right place to head off the line and keep his team in with a chance going into the second-half.
Three minutes after the interval, North Korea had their first shot on target when Jong Il-gwan drove a powerful effort at Wang Dalei who could only push the ball in front of him, requiring Mei Fang to throw himself in front of a follow-up shot to block it. Five minutes later, captain Zheng Zhi was replaced by Yu Hanchao and the consequential disorganisation of the Chinese defensive unit was almost immediately apparent.
The Comeback Is Un: North Korea celebrate their (Gao Lin’s) goal
In the 56th minute, Pak Kwang-ryong was able to beat Zhang Linpeng to the byline and his neat chip to the back post found Jong Il-gwan in acres of space. Jong took a neat first touch and his finish beat Wang Dalei only to be blocked on the line by Zhang who had done well to recover his position. Unfortunately, the defender’s clearance went straight into the side of Guangzhou Evergande teammate Gao Lin and he was unable to keep it out a second time.
For the remainder of the game, you’d be forgiven for thinking that it was the North Koreans who had already won the group as they began to overwhelm a Chinese side that had clearly already shifted focus to Thursday’s quarter-final and didn’t want to expend large amounts of energy holding off their dogged opponents. Just three minutes after the goal, Jong Il-gwan headed a Ro Hak-su cross over when he should have hit the target and the North Koreans began to take control of Chinese midfield featuring an out of position Yu Hai and an immobile Cai Huikang.
Wu Xi’s introduction on 70 minutes should have sured things up but, after his excellent performance against Uzbekistan, he looked a little off the pace and North Korea had two more great opportunites to get something from the game. In the 82nd minute, Sim Hyon-jin flicked the ball to So Hyun-uk on the edge of the penalty area and the substitute unleashed wicked dipping volley which smacked into the crossbar after beating Wang Dalei. And three minutes into stoppage time, Wang was called upon to demonstrate his shot-stopping ability when a header from Sim Hyon-jin forced the Shandong Luneng keeper into making a great save low to his left.
The North Koreans will exit the competition with zero points, but their second-half performance in Canberra at least means they can leave Australia with some degree of pride. For the Chinese, there will be rightful concern at how they performed in the second half, but the circumstances in which it was played are a mitigating factor. Ultimately, a team that probably didn’t want to fight for 90 minutes was still able to come out with three points against opponents who, in terms of pride, had more to play for.
Rising Sun: Sun Ke’s performance stood out again
It was a half of football that China will want to put behind them, but that should be pretty easy to do with the enticing prospect of a sold out game against Australia in four days time. Perrin’s team demonstrated defensive instability for the first time in this tournament, but the unit was not at full strength throughout the game and it is better to focus on the positives. Sun Ke is growing in confidence, Jiang Zhipeng is a legitimate threat down the left and Zheng Zhi remains a commanding presence in the centre of midfield.
If the Chinese team that played the second half against North Korea shows up in Brisbane to play Australia, they have little chance of going through. However, that’s not likely, and if the highly motivated, full strength team that overcame Uzbekistan last Wednesday turn out against the hosts next week, they will be in with a chance of progressing to a possible blockbuster semi-final against Japan. Whatever happens, three wins from three in what was supposed to be the Asian Cup’s most competitive group is a remarkable achievement for Team China and anything more will be a very welcome bonus.