With China’s FIFA ranking already guaranteeing that they would be among the top seeds when the World/Asian Cup qualifying draw is made later this month, there was, ostensibly, little to be gained from a pair of friendlies against Haiti and Tunisia.
However, with both games being in front of passionate home crowds and several fringe players granted an opportunity to impress thanks to an injury-riddled squad, there was still plenty to watch out for as the Chinese national team took the field for the first time since their impressive display at January’s Asian Cup.
The following is a brief report of each game followed by some observations regarding potential implications for certain players.
China 2-2 Haiti
Friday night saw the Chinese and Haitian national teams converge in Changsha to play out a relatively entertaining contest. The name Haiti doesn’t exactly conjure up images of footballing excellence, but the Caribbean side actually came into the game ranked 77th in the FIFA rankings. This put them six places above China and so they were not to be taken as lightly as they were by many in the local media.
The home side created a few chances in the early stages but found themselves behind thanks to a howler from Wang Dalei. The Shandong Luneng goalkeeper collected an innocuous back pass from Mei Fang and then dawdled on the ball for what seemed like an eternity before being robbed by Jeff Louis. The Standard Liege forward promptly slotted the ball into the empty net and, despite Wang’s half-hearted protests that he had been upended, Haiti went into the interval a goal to the good.
Wang was withdrawn at half-time in favour of Yan Junling and the Shanghai SIPG goalkeeper was accompanied onto the field by fellow debutante Zhang Chiming and Yang Xu who replaced Yu Hai and Gao Lin, respectively. China looked better after the changes and it took less than 13 minutes for Yang to level the scores when he professionally converted Ji Xiang’s cross.
The hosts continued to dominate, but their opponents took the lead against the run of play on 73 minutes when Wilde Donald Guerrier ran on to a neat though ball from Duckens Nazon and slotted low past Yan Junling. However, China grabbed a deserved equaliser just nine minutes later when Yu Dabao, who had been on the pitch for less than a minute, scored with his first touch. Wu Xi had cleverly headed a shallow corner across the face of the goal and Beijing Guo’an’s big money winter signing couldn’t really miss with a two yard header into an open goal. On the balance of play China probably deserved to win the game but, having come from behind twice, a draw can’t be considered a bad result.
China 1-1 Tunisia
If most expected China to defeat Haiti, Tunisia provided an entirely different proposition. The North Africans are ranked 25th in the world and would have been 2015 African Cup of Nations semi-finalists had it not been for some erratic refereeing during their quarter-final tie against hosts Equatorial Guinea. While many of their African Cup squad were absent, it was clear that the Eagles of Carthage needed to be taken seriously.
Perrin made three changes to the team which started against Haiti and the crowd in Nanjing were given something to cheer about as four Jiangsu Sainty players – Ren Hang, Ji Xiang, Wu Xi and Liu Jianye – were included in the line-up. The opening thirty minutes of the contest were by no means dull, but the game really came to life during a wild ten minute period just after the half hour mark.
Wu Xi fed an excellent ball to Wu Lei who was only denied by some wonderful goalkeeping from Farouk Ben Mustapha. Shortly after, Feng Xiaoting had a header cleared off the line before being made to look a fool when Taha Yassine Khenissi breezed past his lunging tackle a few minutes later. That allowed the forward a free run at Wang Dalei who was far to slow getting off his line and when the CS Sfaxien player knocked the ball past the on rushing goalkeeper a 1-0 Tunisian lead seemed certain. However, Ren Hang was on hand to bring the Jiangsu crowd to its feet with a spectacular last ditch sliding tackle which had no room for error.
Unfortunately, the home town hero’s hard work was undone just a few minutes later when Feng Xiaoting carelessly gave the ball away in his own half. The Chinese defense scrambled to hold off the immediate danger but Mohammed Ali Moncer took advantage of the ensuing chaos to ghost in at the back post and convert an Oussama Haddadi cross. The CS Sfaxien midfielder had been afforded so much space by a combination of left back Jiang Zhipeng’s snail-like return to the back line and Feng Xiaoting’s ball watching.
As he had done in the Haiti game, Perrin withdrew the player most responsible for his side being behind by replacing Feng Xiaoting with Guangzhou Evergrande teammate Mei Fang. Yang Xu was also subbed for Gao Lin and, once again, China looked stronger in the second half.
However, despite the improved performance, Tunisia were almost out of sight eight minutes after the break when Ji Xiang recklessly brought Saber Khalifa inside the penalty area. The Club Africain forward picked himself up to take the spot kick, but Wang Dalei used the opportunity to atone for his terrible error against Haiti. Not only did the former Shanghai Shenhua man repeat his Asian Cup feat of blocking the penalty he did a pretty incredible job of getting an outstretched hand to Khalifa’s follow up.
The double save clearly galvanised Wang and the team in general, but they found it difficult to convert pressure into solid opportunities. With the game moving into seven minutes of added time thanks to the glass-like legs of Tunisia’s numerous “injured” players, the game looked to have gotten away from the hosts.
Thankfully, however, Mustapha granted China a late gift when he fumbled Gao Lin’s fairly innocuous looking free kick into the path of Yu Dabao four minutes after the end of regulation. Yu, who had been introduced in the 77th minute, was able to tap in his second easy finish in as many games to even the score. There is a pretty strong argument to say that Mei Fang, who was offside when the free kick was taken, was interfering with play by obstructing Haddadi’s attempt to clear, but it would have taken a brave referee to make that call and the game finished all square in a result that neither side could have too many complaints about.
Obviously, in these kind of friendlies, the performance of both the team and the individual players is more important than the result and this becomes even more apparent given the changes forced upon the side by injury. As a team, it is fair to say China equipped themselves adequately against two sides placed above them in the FIFA rankings, although it will have been a disappointment not to have scored more against Haiti. In terms of individuals, Wang Dalei and Yu Dabao are the two players everyone is talking about, although it remains to be seen whether these games have any long term impact on either man’s international future.
Wang’s error in the first game was horrendous, but it is surely better that it happened in an essentially meaningless friendly rather than a game with anything at stake. A goalkeeper with a personality as big as Wang’s is always in danger of over-confidence and his moment of madness will hopefully prevent him from committing such a folly again. The nervous excitement which could be heard among the Nanjing fans every time the ball was played back to Wang against Tunisia was amusing and he was able to demonstrate his undoubted ability with that phenomenal double save from the penalty.
Yu Dabao’s pair of late equalisers have certainly given those who have long been upset at his exclusion from Perrin’s squad ammunition for their arguments, but both goals were handed to him on a platter. Of course, you have to be in the right position to score them but neither strike proves that Yu is worthy of a place in a team which has just come off of its most successful performance in over ten years.
Yu had only been included in the squad as an absolute last ditch replacement for Sun Ke after the uncapped Zhang Lu had been picked ahead of him to replace the previously injured Zhang Chengdong. Perrin seems to care little for reputation and when Sun Ke and Zhang Chengdong are fit Yu may once again struggle to make the squad.
Otherwise, Zhang Chiming was the real talking point as the Chongqing Lifan player, who has only ever played in three Super League games, made two second half substitute appearances. Although he’s already 25, Zhang had the swagger and enthusiasm of a fearless teenager as he showed no qualms about running at opposing defenders at great speed. He was fouled for the free kick which led to the injury time equaliser against Tunisia and made several dribbles which put his opponents on the back foot. That being said, his passing left a lot to be desired and, at times, he tried to do far too much with the ball leading to a loss of possession. Zhang certainly offers something different but it is hard to tell if he will figure in Perrin’s long term plans.
A first half horror show against Tunisia means that veteran centre back Feng Xiaoting failed to capitalise on Zhang Linpeng’s injury to reassert himself into the team. Despite his comparative inexperience, Mei Fang looks more composed than Feng and Ren Hang seems to be vastly improved every time he steps into the middle of China’s defense. The only thing that may keep Ren out of the centre on a permanent basis is whether Perrin trusts Jiang Zhipeng to be able to do the defensive work at left back. If he doesn’t, Ren may find himself back on the flanks and Feng may still be only one injury away from the starting line-up.
Gao Lin is probably a better all round player than Yang Xu, but one wonders how long Perrin can go on ignoring the latter’s superior international goal scoring record when selecting his starting line-ups. Yang has managed 11 goals in 30 appearances while Gao has managed just 10 in 54. Meanwhile, over the last year, Yang has grabbed 3 goals in 445 minutes, while Gao has netted just 2 in 685. Statistics aren’t everything but goals are and, at the moment, it is pretty clear who is more likely to score them.
Finally, it’s worth noting that Cai Huikang really looks like a viable replacement for Zheng Zhi in the holding midfield role when the veteran finally hangs up his boots. Cai’s distribution may still be some way off of Zheng’s, but his positioning and tackling are getting better all the time and he looked a natural in the role during both games.
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