China overcame a frustrating first half to run out comfortable 6-0 winners on the beginning of their long road to Russia. Yang Xu bagged a hat-trick, substitute Yu Dabao got a brace and Wu Lei also struck, but a combination of woeful finishing and heroic goalkeeping from Hari Gureng kept the scoreline lower than many anticipated.
This match was somewhat of a lose-lose situation for China as a large victory over a team classified as the worst in the world just a few months ago was the minimum expected. This was compounded by Hong Kong’s 7-0 win at home to the Bhutanese last Friday which demonstrated how weak the side from the Himalayan Kingdom really are.
AFC 2018 World Cup Qualifying, Round 2, Group C
Yang Xu 45+2′, 60′, 76′
Wu Lei 55′
Yu Dabao 67′, 83′
However, while that game was played in the island metropolis, this one took place in very different surroundings. The picturesque Changlimthang Stadium uses an artificial pitch and stands 2,500 metres above sea level. When filled with enthusiastic Bhutanese fans, it proved a difficult environment for the Chinese to play in, even if the opposition were vastly inferior.
With the exception of goalkeeper Yan Junling, the Chinese starting line-up was pretty much the strongest available. In a rare run out for the traditional 4-4-2, Yang Xu and Gao Lin played up top with Zheng Zhi providing creativity in the middle and Cai Huikang protecting the back four. Sun Ke and Wu Lei were out on the flanks and, after a series of corners which came to nothing, it was their cooperation with Yang which created the best early chances.
A neat one-two between Yang Xu and Wu Lei led to Gureng making the first of many saves when he blocked the latter’s scissor kick in the 5th minute. A couple of minutes later, Yang headed over from a Sun Ke cross and it was already clear the Bhutan defence was going to be in for a long day.
Further efforts from Sun Ke, Yang Xu and Wu Lei were either blocked or off target and, by the time the Shanghai SIPG forward scuffed an effort wide in the 26th minute, frustrations were clearly growing. China continued creating chances as Gao Lin, Zheng Zhi and centre back Ren Hang also got in on the action. In the 44th minute, when Sun failed to get the slight touch needed to direct Wu’s cross goal header into the empty net, it really seemed as though it was not going to be China’s day.
However, as first half stoppage time came to a close, left back Jiang Zhipeng launched a hopeful long ball in the direction of Yang Xu. The diminutive defense was unable to deal with it and Yang got a shot off which found its way into the net courtesy of a heavy deflection.
With the first goal in the bag, it looked as though the floodgates were going to open after the interval, but the opposite happened as Bhutan came out swinging. They had what was easily their best five minute period of the game and Yan Junling, who was perhaps picked over Wang Dalei and Zeng Cheng on the premise that he would have nothing to do, was called upon to make two fine saves from lively youngster Chencho Gyeltshen.
With those stops, Yan did his chances of adding to his three national team caps no harm, and he also took the wind out of Bhutanese sails. After their five minute flurry, the home players looked spent and China moved to kill off the game.
A beautiful turn from Sun Ke was followed by a low cross which was bravely snuffed out by Gureng at the feet of Yang Xu. Then, the 23-year-old stopper blocked a close range Yang header before tipping over a lobbed return ball.
Unfortunately for Bhutan, the resilience of Gureng and the rest of their back line could only last for so long and Wu Lei finally added the decisive second in the 55th minute. A Zheng Zhi corner was headed against the bar by Cai Huikang and Gureng was able to push out Wu Lei’s first headed follow-up. Luckily for the visitors, the ball came straight back to Wu who was able to nod it past a crowd of three Bhutanese defenders amassed on the line.
With the win secured, China head coach Alain Perrin immediately changed tact and sent on speedy winger Liu Binbin in place of defensive midfielder Cai Huikang. Wu Lei moved into the middle, with Liu taking his spot on the right.
This was an attacking change designed to run up the score and it paid dividends on the hour when Yang Xu latched on to a low through ball to slot in his second of the game. A minute later, Perrin made the team even more positive when he replaced right back Zhang Chengdong with Beijing Guo’an teammate Yu Dabao. Yu took Sun Ke’s place on the left wing and the Jiangsu Sainty man moved to the unfamiliar position of right back.
By that point, it mattered little who was playing at the back as all of China’s focus was on going forward. Wu Lei forced another great save from Gureng with a powerful long range effort and Yu Dabao shot just wide. The fourth came in the 67th minute when Wu chested a Sun Ke cross into the path of Yu who made no mistake with a low finish.
Three minutes later, debutante winger Song Boxuan replaced Gao Lin and allowed his Guo’an teammate Yu Dabao to join Yang Xu up front. This led to another fine save from Gureng who palmed Yu’s low header off the line, only to see Yang’s follow up hit the post.
However, the Shandong Luneng striker only had to wait a minute or so to complete his hat trick as he tapped in a low cross from club teammate Liu Binbin. Yang then turned provider in the 83rd minute when his cross gave Yu Dabao the opportunity to head in his fourth goal in his last three second-half substitute appearances for the national team. China then missed the stoppage time chance to match Hong Kong’s scoreline when Wu Lei managed to scoop the ball over the bar while facing an open goal from three yards out.
Plan A or Plan B?
As four of the goals and many of the best chances came after Cai Huikang’s withdrawal, there will be questions raised about why the holding midfielder was needed to partner Zheng Zhi in the first place. As a dreadful shot midway through the first half demonstrated, Cai offers very little going forward and, against this level of opposition, Zheng Zhi could surely be trusted to take the holding role with Wu Lei driving forward alongside him to menace the Bhutanese defence.
However, it seems like this may have been a well orchestrated plan by China manager Alain Perrin to, first, guarantee the result and, then, add more goals once Bhutan had run out of steam. With a boisterous home crowd behind them, the Bhutanese players had plenty of willing but are not professional athletes.
That meant that maintaining their gallant efforts for 90 minutes would be impossible, even if the altitude gave them some advantage. It seems as though Perrin counted on this and planned accordingly. Of course, he may have just grown frustrated with his players’ poor finishing and decided to throw on more attackers in the hope they would do a better job.
The phrase “there are no easy games in international football” doesn’t really apply to Asia. However there have already been a few surprises in this first batch of qualifying games. Qatar had to wait until the 99th minute to grab a winner against the Maldives in the first round of games in China’s group; Japan were held to a 0-0 draw in Singapore; Uzbekistan went down 4-2 in North Korea; and Guam have stunned everybody by winning their first two qualifiers.
That being said, anything other than a win would have been an unmitigated disaster for China and Hong Kong’s 7-0 victory clearly added to the pressure to rack up a big score. However, the most important thing is results and if China get enough good ones they will advance to the final round of World Cup qualifying regardless of how many goals they score.
Next up, Perrin has an excellent opportunity to really test his players when the East Asian Championship is played in Wuhan in early August. The one week tournament will see China take on Japan, South Korea and North Korea before continuing on the road to Russia on September 3rd.
Then, they will travel to Shenzhen to take on Hong Kong who top the fledgling group table after picking up a 2-0 win at home to the Maldives this evening. That should still be a win for Guozu, but it will provide a much sterner test than they received today.
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