The Chinese under-22 national team’s disappointing Toulon Tournament came to an end on Friday with fourth straight loss – a 3-1 reverse to England.
The young team’s performance was however a great improvement on the previous three, and were shorn of established under-22 stars who were either injured or remained with their clubs to continue playing the Super League. China finished bottom of a five team group also containing Morocco, Mexico and Ivory Coast.
The tournament, held annually in the south of France since 1967, has long be viewed as showcase for some of the world’s brightest young talent, with the likes of Zinedine Zidane, Thierry Henry, Alan Shearer and David Beckham making a name for themselves on the Mediterranean coast. This year’s edition, with 40 minute halves to counteract the punishing schedule of a game every other day, featured ten invited teams who included players born in or after 1993.
The priority for those sides taking part in the competition is player development rather than results, but the abject nature of China’s earlier displays offers cause for concern. With the likes of Liu Binbin, Wang Tong (both Shandong Luneng), Li Ang (Jiangsu Sainty), Xie Pengfei, Feng Gang (both Hangzhou Greentown), Shi Ke (Shanghai SIPG) and Liao Lisheng (Guangzhou Evergrande) absent, the tournament gave an opportunity for several fringe players to shine. Unfortunately, few took the chance as China struggled at both ends of the field.
China U-22 0-3 Morocco U-22
The tone was set in the opening game which saw China fall 3-0 to eventual group winners Morocco. The impressive North Africans were dominant and Achraf Bencharki, one of the players of the tournament, gave them the lead in the first half.
Chinese right back Yang Ting, who had a difficult game, headed against the post just before half time but that proved to be China’s only shot of the match. An own goal from Hangzhou Greentown left back Cao Haiqing was followed up by a late strike from Soufiane Bahia.
China U-22 0-2 Mexico U-22
A second half brace from Carlos Cisneros was enough to condemn China to a 2-0 defeat in A match which featured more poor defending from the East Asians. Cao Haiqing was particularly culpable for the second goal by getting caught under a high cross and the Mexicans could have scored more with some better finishing. Late in the game, winger Wei Shihao was harshly given a second booking for what looked like an unintentional handball.
China U-22 0-3 Ivory Coast U-22
Wei’s red card at least meant he was suspended for this game and so could absolve himself of responsibility for the disastrous first half display his side put on against the Ivorians. Within 32 minutes the West Africans were 3-0 up, thanks in large part to powerful 19-year-old forward Chris Bedia.
The Tours striker got between centre backs Zhang Xiaobin and Yang Ting to score the first in just 6 minutes. He then pressured Zhang into an own goal following a deep cross. Yet another deep ball into the box, complimented by some poor marking, allowed Ousmane Outarra to head in a third.
Outarra’s goal led to Ivorians taking their foot of the pedal and China did create some chances later in the game, with Chang Feiya squandering the two best ones. The Guangzhou R&F winger should have done better when centre forward Chen Tao played him in with a nice pass just before half-time. Deep in the second half, Chang was wasted another opportunity when he was the recipient of a beautiful outside of the boot delivery from Chen’s replacement, Yang Chaosheng.
China U-22 1-3 England U-22
Indeed, Yang, on loan at Liaoning from Guangzhou Evergrande, impressed after coming on against Ivory Coast and was given the nod to start against England in the final game. It is important to note that this was effectively a second string England under-22 side as the first choice squad are busy preparing for the upcoming UEFA under-21 European Championships. That meant many eligible Premier League stars, such as Harry Kane and Saido Berahino, were absent.
However, the staring line-up still featured several highly rated English youngsters and two of them found themselves on the score sheet. Rolando Aarons, who made six appearances for Newcastle United last season, was left completely unmarked at the back post to convert a low cross just before half-time.
Then, Lewis Baker, on the books at Chelsea but most recently on loan at MK Dons, was the beneficiary of more slack marking to add another early in the second half. China were rewarded for a string of missed chances when substitute Guo Yi pulled one back with in a minute of coming on, but Zhang Xiaobin’s second own goal in as many games sealed England’s victory.
Two of the key themes for China in this tournament were disorganised defending and impotency in attack, but both of these aspects seemed to have improved greatly against England. Head coach Fu Bo moved the team from its traditional 4-2-3-1 into a 5-4-1 and this provided more solidity, even if it failed to stamp out individual errors in marking.
While in attack, Guo Yi, who like six of the nineteen man squad is currently honing his skills with a Portuguese club, found the back of the net to prevent China ending the tournament completely goalless. In fact, not only were China worthy of their goal, but they were unfortunate not to score more.
Their attack looked far more dynamic against England than in the previous three games, but this raises the question as to why they weren’t stronger going forward from the get go. It is very telling that China scored three times at the wrong and once at the right one. The absence of centre backs Li Ang, Shi Ke and Wang Tong (who also regularly plays right back) goes some way towards explaining China’s defensive woes, but there were players in attack who should have threatened more.
Wingers Chang Feiya and Wu Xinghan play regularly for top CSL sides Guangzhou R&F and Shandong Luneng, while attacking midfielder Wang Shangyuan has made eight appearance for Guangzhou Evergrande this season. Admittedly, Wang has played in a deeper role for the CSL champions, but one would still expect a 22-year-old who plays at China’s best club side to create more.
Not an awful lot of blame can be laid at the feet of centre forwards Chen Tao and Yang Chaosheng, who each started two games, as they were largely starved of service. Although, Yang did a better job of getting involved in the game than his counterpart, who is currently on loan at CSL basement-dwellers Shanghai Shenxin from Shandong.
As stated earlier, results are not everything in this kind competition and one wouldn’t expect China to excel in a field including some of Europe’s, Africa’s and Central America’s best sides. But it should be noted that the Chinese side finished in the top four of this tournament three times in the 2000s despite not participating in every edition. Development is vital, but a positive result here and there wouldn’t do any harm either.
Player progress aside, this tournament was also undertaken with an eye on preparations for the AFC under-23 Championships to be held in Qatar next January. The top three teams in that competition will earn coveted spots at the Rio Olympics football tournament which is a serious goal for China.
The opposition in Qatar will be weaker and the Chinese squad should be stronger, but the outcome of this year’s Toulon Tournament will not inspire confidence. Some flashes of potential perhaps, but still no sign of a Chinese Zidane or Henry to truly bring optimism for the future.