Yu Hai’s defelected free kick was enough to give China a narrow victory in their opening Asian Cup game, but it was an earlier penalty save from Wang Dalei which had kept Alain Perrin’s side in the game.
China controlled a cagey first half, but the Saudis looked more threatening in the second and were almost rewarded in the 60th minute when Ren Hang mistimed a last ditch tackle on Naif Hazazi to give the Green Falcons a penalty. However, Hazazi ignored the old adage that the one who wins the spot kick shouldn’t take it, and his weak effort was saved by the feet of Wang.
Yu Hai 81′
Saudi Arabia 0
Then, nine minutes from the end, Yu Hai used his left foot to powerfully strike a free kick that bounced off the back of Nawar Al-Abed and left goalkeeper Waleed Abdullah with no chance as it sailed into the opposite corner to which it was originally destined. That the ball found the net was fortunate enough, but just a few minutes earlier it looked as though Yu was about to be hooked off for Liu Binbin only for a Mei Fang injury to force Perrin into using his final substitution on replacing the left back.
However, this victory marks a first in five Asian Cup attempts against Saudi Arabia and few Chinese football fans will care how it came about.
Indeed, one could argue that China’s good fortune started before kick-off when they heard the eleventh hour announcement that that, Asian Player of the Year, Nasser Al-Shamrani was officially ruled out of the tournament following an injury picked up in a friendly against South Korea. Conversely, China went into the game at full strength and their starting line-up was very similar to the one that turned out in the 4-1 friendly victory against Oman but with some key changes down the flanks. Ji Xiang and Zhang Chengdong swapped roles down the right, with the former moving up from full back to the wing; and, surprisingly, Mei Fang replaced Jiang Zhipeng at left back.
There was also an element of surprise that Yu Hai kept his lone striking role, but Guozu’s first half performance largely justified Perrin’s decisions. Although ball possession was pretty even, most of the first 45 minutes was played in the Saudi half and the Green Falcons couldn’t muster a single shot on goal in the opening 45 minutes. Unfortunately, China only conjured two of their own, with the best chance coming in the 43rd minute when Wu Xi skipped past one tackle before riding another and firing off a low shot that edged just wide of the post.
The second half was a different story. Prior to the game, both managers had claimed their opponent would have superior fitness for different reasons. Perrin said his players would not be at their best after taking time off at the end of the Super League season in early November. Meanwhile, Saudi Head Coach, Cosmin Olaroiu, suggested that his team’s participation in November’s Gulf Cup meant they were exhausted from playing too much. In the event, it was Perrin’s pre-match excuse that seemed to be proven right as his side faded badly in the second half.
A wild long distance shot from Mei Fang in the 53rd minute marked the end of Chinese domination, as the Saudi’s started being first to every ball and putting increasing pressure on their opponents. Good blocks from Mei Fang and Zhang Chengdong kept the Saudis from testing Wang Dalei, but disaster almost struck on the hour mark when China conceded a penalty.
An excellent throughball from inside the Saudi half caught Ren Hang and Zhang Chengdong flat footed and Hazazi was able to nip in between them on his was towards goal. Ren had no option but to attempt a last ditch tackle but he couldn’t reach the ball and the Al-Shabab forward went down under the challenge. The Jiangsu Santy man might justifiably have been shown a red card for being the last man but the referee took mercy and produced a yellow. This allowed Ren to stay on the field and witness Wang Dalei add sway to the argument that he is China’s best goalkeeper by stopping Hazazi’s admittedly poor spot kick.
After a few more difficult minutes, Perrin made two changes in an effort to bring his side back into it. Centre forward Yang Xu came on for Hao Junmin, with Yu Hai moving out to the left wing to replace Hao; and Yu Hanchao came on for Zhang Chengdong with Ji Xiang dropping back into the right back position. Unfortunately, the move almost paid immediate dividends for the Saudis who broke from a corner straight after the changes were made and found themselves in a four on two situation. Recent Gulf Cup of Nations player of the tournament, Nawaf Al-Abed, slipped the ball to Salem Al-Dawsari but his first touch wasn’t great and he could only roll a weak shot straight at Wang Dalei.
The Saudis continued to press but the Chinese defense (particularly Zhang Linpeng) stood firm until Wu Xi almost undid all their hard work with a reckless pass. Under no pressure, Wu played a poor ball that was cut out by Salman Al-Faraj who gave Hazizi the chance to redeem his penalty miss with a nice pass. Sadly for Saudi Arabia, it wasn’t Hazizi’s night and he could only find the side netting from a tight angle.
A minute later, the camera cut to the sideline where speedster Liu Binbin had disrobed and appeared set to become Perrin’s last substitution. As Liu’s favoured position is on the left wing, it looked as though Yu Hai would be sacrifised in favour of the 21-year-old. However, after some confusion, the director focussed on Mei Fang who was on the deck clutching his quad and Perrin had no choice but to use his final change to replace a stretcher-bound Mei (who was already struggling on the left of defense as he clearly favours his right foot) with natural left-back Jiang Zhipeng.
Liu Binbin had no option but to re-robe and, just three minute later, Yu Hai had put China in front. Yu’s opportunity to shine came when Wu Xi made a familiarly surging run through midfield and won a free kick after being tripped from behind by Al-Abed. With the ball positioned around 30 yards out and to the right of Abdullah’ss goal, it hardly looked like the ideal place from which to shoot and it probably wasn’t. Thankfully, that didn’t deter the Guizhou Renhe player who fired his effort at the near corner, only for it to ricochet off the hapless Al-Abed and into the far corner. The Brisbane Stadium, which was largely populated with Chinese fans, erupted with deight and Alain Perrin probably would have given Mei Fang a pat on the back if he wasn’t still lying on it.
The goal galvanised China, and they spent the last ten minutes comfortably dealing with Saudi attacks and hitting the Middle Easterners on the counter. After four minutes of stoppage time, the referree signalled for the end of the game, and the Stadium once again desended into delirium. There is no doubt that China had serendipity on their side and on the balance of the two halves, a draw probably would have been a fair result.
Despite that, China’s performance was solid, if not exceptional, and the important thing is that a national team that has regularly been guilty of capitualting under pressure was able to grind out a win when up against it. Wang Dalei and Yu Hai will take the plaudits, but it was, barring a couple of lapses, a strong team performance anchored by the excellent spine of Zheng Zhi and Zhang Linpeng
Atttention now turns to Wednesday when Perrin’s men return to the Brisbane Stadium to take on Uzbekistan. The group favourites also won their opening goup game 1-0 against a poor looking North Korea side. Although the torrential rain that dogged the match in Sydney can be considered a mitigating factor, the Central Asians won the game with out looking particularly impressive and, while China will start the match as underdogs, they will be justified in feeling they have a realistic chance to get something from the contest.
Bearing in mind that China were eliminated in the group stage in Qatar four years ago despite winning their opening game, it is important not to get too carried away by this result. However, this is still an excellent win against a team which Guozu have traditionally struggled against and Perrin, the players and the fans have every right to enjoy the moment before looking ahead to the rest of the tournament.
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