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WIth China’s Asian Cup campaign about to kick-off against Saudi Arabia, takes a closer look at each member of the 23-man squad and what you can expect from them. Who are the stars, who’s likely to play, who’s along for the ride and who might spring a surprise.
The undisputed leader of the team, Zheng is more than five years older than anyone else in the squad and will captain the side in Australia. A veteran of China’s 2004 run to the Asian Cup final, Zheng continues to defy the years with strong displays for both club and country. Zheng will largely act as a shield for the back four, but he still has the ability to do it at the other end as his recent goal against New Zealand demonstrated. Zheng will be the anchor of a young side and, in that sense, he’s the only player that would be irreplaceable should he get injured or suspended.
Time To Step Up: Zhang Zhi (10) and Zhang Linpeng (5) will be looking to shine in Australi
As Marcello Lippi said in 2012, Zhang Linpeng is “the best Chinese footballer in the Chinese Super League.” ‘s Chinese Player of the Year has being consistently excellent over the last few years and if Zheng Zhi wasn’t still strutting his stuff, Zhang would be captaining the side. Many feel that Zhang should already have secured a move to Europe by now, and a top level performance in this tournament may help facilitate more interest from abroad.
It looks as though Perrin will play Zhang in the centre of defense along with either Ren Hang, Mei Fang or Li Ang and this is the one possible snag in Zhang’s January. Although he has plenty of experience playing in the centre he still spends most of his time playing at right back for Evergrande and he may find it difficult to cope in the heart of defense with a partner who is less experienced than him. A mistake that gifted a goal to Oman in the final warm-up game doesn’t bode well, but let’s not be too pessimistic. Zhang has all the tools to succeed at a high level and, should China make waves at the tournament, he has the opportunity to be a real star in Australia.
Nearly Man: Wu Lei has another opportunity to score with his head. With Zhang Xizhe off chomping bratwurst in Wolfsburg, Wu is the undisputed golden boy of the national team. Pegged for greatness since the age of fourteen, Wu finished as the highest Chinese goal scorer in 2014’s Super League. When in form, Wu is a dangerous attacker who is just as likely to assist a teammate as he is to put the ball in the net himself. The major downside with him is that he tends to blow hot and cold and can’t be relied upon to perform every time he takes the field. His late season dip in form coincided with Shanghai SIPG’s slide down the table and in recent friendlies for China he has been incredibly wasteful in front of goal, while still managing to bag three goals in eight games since September.
After being tried out in the lone forward role (or false nine, depending on how pretentious you are) it seems that Perrin has decided to play him just behind the striker and this seems to be his most suitable role. This has the potential to be a huge tournament for Wu, but he needs to shine from start to finish. If he doesn’t, China may not be able to get the goals needed to take them deep into the tournament.
If you’d asked Chinese fans in the autumn of 2014 who one of China’s key Asian Cup players was going to be, only those in possession of a functioning crystal ball could possibly have said Hao Junmin. The player, who had the whole World in front of him when he moved to Schalke 04 in 2010, had not featured in the national team for two years and had been relegated to a bit part role in Shandong behind Zhang Wenzhao, Liu Binbin and a trio of South Americans. Hao started just four league games all season but, apparently out of nowhere, he was called up by Alain Perrin for a pair of friendlies against New Zealand and Honduras in November.
Hao took his chance with a man of the match performance against the Antipodeans followed by a late thirty minute cameo against the Central Americans in which he was the most dangerous looking player on the field. Just like that, Hao had made himself an indispensable part of the national team set-up and wherever he plays across the attacking midfield three, looks capable of fashioning an opportunity out of nothing. Should Wu Lei fail to step-up on the big stage, Hao could well leave Australia as Guozu’s player of the tournament.
Safe Pair Of Hands? Wang Dalei in action against Paraguay
Having been a stand out keeper for Shanghai Shenhua in 2012 and 2013, it took a move to Shandong Luneng last winter to really give Wang a shot at being China’s first choice goalkeeper. Facing stiff competition from Zeng Cheng and the now out of favour Yang Zhi, Wang has come to the fore under Alain Perrin and, based on recent friendly line-ups, seems to have wrested a spot in the starting XI away from the former. An excellent performance against Paraguay back in October demonstrated Wang’s shot-stopping abilities but the occasional rush of blood is enough to make fans nervous, while his one-handed method of gathering up loose balls looks destined to end in tears one day.
Ji Xiang – (Right Back – Jiangsu Sainty) Caps: 2 – Goals: 0
Ji seemingly materialised from thin air to make a late surge at the squad, and has a realistic chance of starting at right back if Zhang Chengdong plays in a more advanced role. Usually a right wing-back with Jiangsu, Ji gets forward well and has a pretty mean free kick on him as his goal in this year’s CFA Cup final showed. After only making his debut in December, Ji lacks experience at international level, but has performed well in the short time he has been with the team.
Ren Hang – (Centre Back/Left Back – Jiangsu Sainty) Caps: 10 – Goals: 0
After being off the international team radar for most of his career, Ren made his debut against Macedonia back in the summer. Since then he has appeared in all but one of China’s official internationals and seems to be a favourite of Perrin’s. Ren usually plays as an attacking left wing-back for his club, but Jiang Zhipeng’s excellent recent performances have forced the former Changsha Ginde man into a central defensive partnership with Zhang Linpeng in recent friendlies. It is a mark of how highly Perrin regards Ren that he continues to try and accommodate him in the line-up, but, presuming he stays in that role, it remains to be seen whether his lack of experience in the middle will be a problem when the tournament kicks off.
Jiang Zhipeng – ( Left Back – Guangzhou R&F) Caps: 7 – Goals: 0
Since moving to Guangzhou R&F from Shanghai Shenxin, the attacking left-back’s career has gone from strength to strength. He had an excellent season under Sven Goran Eriksson and forced his way into China’s starting line-up following an energetic display against New Zealand in November. Since then, Jiang has made the left back position his own and offers a real threat while marauding up and down the touch line. The major issue with Jiang is how good he is at the defensive side of his game and it’s questionable how effective he might be when China are under the cosh against superior teams.
Wu Xi – (Midfield – Jiangsu Sainty) Caps: 21 – Goals: 1Wu spent much of his early career as right back but his transition into a midfield dynamo has taken him onto the next level. An energetic box to box midfielder, Wu moves the ball well but his end product is sometimes lacking. Perrin has tried him out in a more advanced role a couple of times, but his inconsistent finishing and final ball means he is better suited to a more withdrawn position in front of the back four. That being said, his pairing with Zheng Zhi should allow the former Shanghai Shenhua man plenty of license to roam forward should the situation in the game allow it.
A tremendous athlete and tireless worker, Zhang made his name as a right back but has played most of the season with Beijing Guo’an on the right wing. He’s been a regular feature in Perrin’s team and it is hIghly likely that Zhang will be in the starting line-up somewhere on the right of the field – the big question is where? He played on the right-wing in the most recent friendly against Oman, but he has also featured in Perrin’s backline.
Zhang offers less creativity than the likes of Hao Junmin or Sun Ke when in a more attacking role, but his endless running means that China defend better down the flank when he’s further up the field. Conversely, Zhang’s tendency to frequently get forward from the back can sometimes leave the defense exposed, while simultaneously strengthening the attack. Therefore, the role Zhang is given may depend on the quality China’s opponent.
Prolific-ish: Yang Xu is China’s most consistent scorer
It’s been an up and down year for Yang who spent the first half of the season on the sidelines at Shandong before reviving his career with a loan move to Changchun Yatai. While he hardly set the World alight in the north-east, the former Liaoning superstar was able to force his way back into the national team by becoming the rare beast that is a Chinese striker that actually plays in the Super League. Goals against Kuwait and Thailand came in the Autumn before an injury put Yang on the shelf for two months. That ended his domestic season, but he was back in time to net three times in two unofficial matches against Kryrgzstan and demonstrate his poachers’ instincts in the process.
Goals are the most important thing in football and Yang certainly offers those, but his starting berth remains uncertain due to competition from Gao Lin and his relative lack of dynamism. Yang is about the closest thing China has to an old-fashioned number 9, but he lacks the speed and positional flexibility offered by China’s other attackers. However, in a team that has proven wasteful in front of goal in recent matches, Yang’s knack for finding the net may prove invaluable.
Zeng looks like he may be losing the battle for the starter’s jersey with Wang Dalei, but that in no way suggests that the fight is over. The Wuhan native first broke into the national team squad in 2009 when he was still with Henan Jianye and since joining Guangzhou Evergrande in 2013 he has impressed on his way to two Super League wins and an Asian Champion’s League title. A player with plenty of big match experience, Zeng will certainly be comfortable between the stick regardless of whether he’s there from the beginning or is called upon later in the tournament.
Mei Fang – (Centre Back/Right Back – Guangzhou Evergande) Caps: 8 – Goals: 0
Another Perrin debutant, Mei made his name in the 2013 Super League while playing for newly-promoted Wuhan Zall. That campaign was doomed to relegation, but Mei caught the eye of Guangzhou Evergrande and left his hometown club to join the Asian champions. Most thought he would spend his time at Tianhe as a second string right back, but Mei appeared seventeen times in the Super League including several times at the heart of defense. It’s in that role that Perrin prefers him, and he has turned out eight times for the national team this year. Selected ahead of more senior teammates Feng Xiaoting and Li Xuepeng, Mei is unlikely to start, but could find his way onto the field should Perrin think twice about playing Ren Hang in the middle.
More Of The Same Please: Gao Lin(18) scores against Kryrgzstan
After Zheng Zhi, Gao is the second most experienced player in the squad and , at 28, he should really be in his prime. Unfortunately Gao has never quite done it at international level as his goal-scoring record shows. Remarkably, Gao has played 46 more international games than Yang Xu, but has only scored four more goals than his teammate. Gao’s all-round game is better than Yang’s, but recent friendlies suggest Perrin has little interest in playing him on the wing and, should he be given the nod over Yang, the Evergrande man will have to offer more in front of goal if he is to make an impact on this tournament.
Sun Ke – (Right Wing/Second Striker – Jiangsu Sainty) Caps: 22 – Goals: 4
Until Hao Junmin burst back onto the scene, Sun looked highly likely to be a member of the tournament’s starting XI. A pacey winger who can play on the right or the left, Sun was a regular in Perrin’s teams throughout 2014, but seems to have fallen out of favour at just the wrong time. Should Zhang Chengdong play at right back, Sun will compete with Yu Hanchao for a spot on the right wing. Should he fail to make the first team, he still offers China an option as a late impact substitute, but his failure to convert enough chances in front of goal may prevent Perrin from pursuing that option.
Yu made a high profile move to Evergrande from Dalian Aerbin in the summer and a lack of game time since may have hurt his chances of featuring regularly in Australia. A creative player, who is better in front of goal than Sun Ke, Yu hasn’t quite lived up to expectations since his big money transfer. That being said, he is undoubtedly a gifted player that, should Perrin give him the opportunity, will want to use this tournament to show what he can do.
The third highest capped player in the squad, Yu has been involved with the national teams since 2009. Usually a left-winger, he scored as a lone forward in the final warm up game against Oman. It seems unlikely that Yu will start there against Saudi Arabia but stranger things have happened and Perrin has already shown his willingness to use players outside of their most common positions. Should the Frenchman opt for the safer choice of Yang Xu or Gao Lin up front, Yu will probably find himself the left wing reserve to Hao Junmin.
It’s been a great year for Yan who improved enormously under the tutelage of Wang Dalei’s former Shenhua goalkeeper coach, Ian Walker. Although his team achieved their highest ever Super League finish by placing fifth, Yan had plenty of opportunity to show his worth behind a porous backline, and was rewarded for his efforts by being named ‘s goalkeeper of the year. The native of Shanghai made his solitary appearance for the national team against Krygyzstan but, as well as having little to do, was denied his first official cap by an excess of half-time substitutions. He will only feature in the event of an injury crisis, but the trip Down Under should be a worthwhile experience for a player with great potential.
Li Ang – (Centre Back – Jiangsu Sainty) Caps: 1 – Goals: 0
Bigger is Better? Physical specimen Li Ang (in blue) will gain valuable experience at the Asian Cup
Li’s call up at the expense of the vastly more experienced Feng Xiaoting was the biggest surprise when the squad was announced. The youngster became a regular for Jiangsu in 2014 but, with the exception of one cap, his international pedigree has been limited to the Under-22 Olympic team and he usually plays in a back three for his club. Li’s inexperience means that he is unlikely to start but his hulking frame offers China a physically dominant presence in the centre of defense should they need it. It may be no coincidence that Feng has been frozen out of the national team since being bullied off the ball by New Zealand striker Chris Wood to concede a late equalizer. Whatever experience Li lacks, that’s a scenario which is unlikely to happen with him on the field.
Liu Jianye – (Defensive Midfield/Full Back – Jiangsu Sainty) Caps: 41 – Goals: 0
Although he’s only 27, Liu is a comparative veteran in the squad. Able to play as a shielding midfielder or in the back four, Liu’s versatility and experience make him a useful squad player but an underwhelming 2014 for both club and country means that he’s only like to be seen in the event of injury or in a late cameo.
Yet another player brought into the fold by Perrin, Cai had been a regular in the side between June and October, but looks likely to start the tournament on the bench. Most politely described as stocky, Cai’s role as protector of the back four is clearly defined because his relative lack of mobility precludes him from doing anything else. Barring injury or suspension, you’re unlikely to see Cai during the anthems, but there’s a decent chance he may appear later in games to sure things up should China find themselves defending a lead.
Another surprising call up, Liao made his international debut in June but wasn’t seen again until the most recent round of warm-ups in December. The youngster had a breakthrough season with Evergande, appearing eighteen times in the Super League – and also impressed for the Under-22 Olympic team in November. That being said, the energetic midfielder’s inclusion in the squad raised a few eyebrows and he is unlikely to see much game time. Liao is one for the future and the experience of being involved at a major tournament should be beneficial for him regardless of how much he plays.
Impact Player: Liu Binbin could make a huge difference late in games
Having only entered the national team set-up in December, Liu was another surprise late edition to the squad. However, of all those young players Perrin has given a chance to, the speedy attacker may be the most deserving. ‘s young player of the year started twenty-three games for a Luneng side stacked with attacking options and repaid Cuca’s faith with some scintillating performances. A regular in the Olympic side for some years, Liu earned his first full cap against Palestine last month. Most commonly a left-winger, Liu is very unlikely to feature in any starting line-ups, but may well get the chance to show his potential as a late substitute against tiring defenses that will be less than pleased to see him.
Based in China for five years, Jamie has been exploring tiny little third tier Hubei cities without football teams or decent internet connections, but is now a regular at China League One side Wuhan Zall.
A keen football afficionado, he regularly takes in the Chinese Super League, enjoying matches in Shanghai, Hangzhou, Guangzhou and Nanjing.
Jamie is also a keen observer of the fortunes of the Chinese National side.