China’s road to Russia 2018 hit a serious obstacle just two games in as they were held by Hong Kong in a game they absolutely dominated. Despite having 39 shots, 72% possession and hitting the Hong Kong woodwork on four first half occasions, China were unable to find a breakthrough, and were even denied a clear stoppage time penalty when Xu Deshuai handled in the area.
AFC WORLD CUP QUALIFICATION GROUP C
Hong Kong 0
The ball struck Xu’s hand as he waved it in the air to appeal for a foul during a Chinese corner, but the referee failed to see the obvious infringement and China were denied a last shot at victory. But while China can feel hard done by, they should have won the game much earlier having had a litany of chances which somehow all failed to find their way into the back of the Hong Kong net.
The best of them came in the 11th minute when a wonderful through ball from Zheng Zhi allowed Yu Hanchao to round Hong Kong goalkeeper Yapp Hung Fai and role the ball into what looked like an empty net. Remarkably, Jean-Jacques Kilama, who was introduced at centre back a few minutes previously thanks to an early injury to veteran Chan Wai Ho, was somehow able to slide in and stab the ball onto the post.
Just a minute earlier, Zheng Zhi had struck the post with a low 25-yard effort and the 35-year-old midfielder also hit the bar from a similar range just before half-time. That came ten minutes after Yu Hanchao had been denied by the woodwork following a beautifully lifted pass from Wu Xi.
Wu Xi had gone close himself in the 19th minute when he volleyed just wide after controlling well with his chest and Kilama’s centre back partner Festus Baise also had to block an effort from going in when he got his body in front of a Wu Lei header just after Yapp had saved at the feet of Wu Xi. With several headers also missing the target, China went into the half-time interval frustrated, but with plenty to be positive about.
Unfortunately, they were unable to carry that momentum into a second-half in which they looked increasingly edgy despite having numerous more chances to score. The best of those came when Wu Lei struck a rasping long range effort nine minutes after the interval which forced Yapp into making a phenomenal save.
Yapp was also called into action in the 70th minute to make another fine stop from Ren Hang’s header, but most of China’s other second-half attempts were either headers or long range shots which lacked the accuracy of Ren or Wu’s efforts. Indeed, by the time Yapp had saved Ren’s header, Alain Perrin had already made all three of his substitutions in a sign that he was unsatisfied with his side’s attacking efforts.
First, Wang Yongpo was introduced in place of the impressive Wu Xi to add a little more creativity to the midfield, then Yang Xu replaced Zheng Long and joined Yu Dabao up front as China switched to a 4-4-2. Zheng, making his first international appearance since 2013, was unable to recapture his domestic form, but Perrin may have wished the free kick specialist was still on pitch in the 86th minute when Wu Lei struck an ideally positioned set piece straight into the midriff of the Hong Kong wall. In the 69th minute, Sun Ke was brought on in place of Yu Hanchao, but China’s new look attack appeared increasingly desperate as the minutes ticked away.
For their part, Hong Kong seemed perfectly satisfied to sit back and claim a point as striker Jaimes McKee was left to fend for himself up front while the rest of the team focused almost exclusively on defensive duties. Kilama, Baise and Yapp will claim the plaudits for their individual heroics, but the entire back four and five man midfield worked incredibly hard to keep China at bay.
As their oft struck woodwork can attest to, though, Hong Kong certainly rode their luck and they almost got some at the other end in the 39th minute when their first corner of the match nearly went straight in. With Wang Dalei standing too far off of his goal line, Lam Ka Wai’s delivery looked to be heading in before the Shandong Luneng goalkeeper was able to push it over the bar at full stretch.
That was the only time Wang was called into defensive action all night, but China could have been punished further for their failure to see out the game had McKee managed to find the target, ten minutes from time, when the ball broke to him just inside the area during a rare attack. In the 90th minute, a dangerous Zhang Linpeng cross forced Hong Kong left back Jack Sealy into a lunging defensive header which luckily went right into Yapp’s arms instead of straight past him and into the net.
Xu Deshuai’s late hand ball no doubt warranted a penalty, but it would have been harsh for Hong Kong to lose the match under those circumstances. While the ball blatantly struck his hand as Zhang Linpeng headed it back across the box, Xu did not handle intentionally and, from a neutral perspective, it would have been a disappointing way for the contest to be decided.
China’s first half performance was very positive, and had they maintained those levels in the second half without finding the breakthrough it would be harsh to be too critical of them. Unfortunately, composure deserted the Chinese in the second half and they paid the price against a resolute opponent.
Individually, nobody had a particularly poor performance, although Jiang Zhipeng’s out of sorts display at left back may have had more of a negative effect against a stronger team. Yu Dabao failed to impress in a rare opportunity to lead the Chinese line, but the introduction of Yang Xu in the second half had no effect on the potency of China’s attack, suggesting that the problem did not lie with Yu alone.
Zhang Linpeng also looked a little rusty going forward from right back, but the Chelsea transfer target was constantly harangued by hard working Hong Kong winger Godfred Karikari. Zhang got more penetration later in the game and it’s perhaps no coincidence that his best attacking contribution, the 90th minute cross which almost forced Jack Sealy into an own goal, came after Karikari had been withdrawn.
Regardless of individual displays and an increasingly disappointing second-half, China were still good enough to win this game and may come to rue these two dropped point later on. Barring Bhutan somehow claiming a miraculous result in Qatar later today, the Middle Eastern side will be two points ahead of China at the end of this round of matches.
That will leave the Chinese hoping that Hong Kong can put on a similar kind of display when they host Qatar next Tuesday. There is no doubt that Hong Kong can show the same kind of fight they did tonight, but whether or not Qatar can have as much bad luck as China will be a different matter,
Of course, should Hong Kong get a result on Tuesday, we may need to start talking about Group C as a three way race rather than just a straight tussle between China and Qatar. Whatever happens, China can afford no further slip ups when they take on the Maldives in Shenyang on Tuesday night, and will travel to Doha in October knowing that they will absolutely need to avoid defeat if progression to the next round of qualifying is to remain a realistic goal.