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China set to face Hong Kong and the Maldives as World Cup qualifying continues

After China’s second place finish in last month’s East Asian Cup, attention turns to the more important matter of World Cup Qualification as China host Hong Kong and the Maldives over the coming week. After the comfortable 6-0 win over Bhutan back in June, China seek to preserve their 100% record against two teams they ought to beat. Here, we preview each game, as well as taking a look at the major talking points surrounding the 23-man squad.

China vs Hong Kong – Shenzhen, September 3rd, 19:35

Of China’s upcoming qualifiers, this is by far the most mouthwatering as Hong Kong make the short subway ride to Shenzhen in an effort to continue their 100% start to the qualifying campaign. A 7-0 drubbing of Bhutan followed by a 2-0 triumph over the Maldives sees Hong Kong atop the fledgling Group C table.

Both of those games were at home, but the side from the Special Administrative Region hardly have to travel far on this occasion as the CFA has made the very accommodating decision to host the match in Shenzhen. As well as meaning the game will likely be played in sweltering heat and humidity, the decision has also made buying tickets a pain in the proverbial with concerns over security meaning that only one ticket is allowed to be bought at a time and a separate identity card is needed for each purchase.

On the pitch, Hong Kong have so far made a mockery of their status as the lowest ranked team in the group and certainly offer China their sternest test other than Qatar. There is a renewed optimism surrounding football in Hong Kong and attacking players Lam Ka Wai and Jaimes Mckee offer a real threat as their two goals apiece in qualifying have demonstrated.

Hong Kong's players celebrating a successful opening to their World Cup qualifying campaign

Hong Kong’s players celebrating a successful opening to their World Cup qualifying campaign

There will also be a couple of China based players in the Hong Kong line-up with Bai He and Godfred Karikari both playing their football on the mainland. Bai plays as a defensive midfielder for Shijiazhuang Ever Bright, although his playing time has been limited this season. Ghanaian born Karikari plays on the wing for League One promotion chasers Beijing BG and has also had spells with Shenzhen Ruby and Henan Jianye.

It is remarkable timing that this game, with all its political undertones, should be scheduled for the same day as the military parade to take place in Beijing to celebrate the 70th anniversary of the Japanese surrender in World War II. Amid all the patriotic fervour, there will no doubt be memories of China’s humiliating defeat to Hong Kong which eliminated them from World Cup qualifying in 1986.

Since then, though, China has defeated Hong Kong 7-0 at home in qualifying for the 2006 World Cup and they ought to be able to beat the former British colony again here. Victory this time around is unlikely to be by such an impressive margin, but anything less than three points should be considered a surprise.

Maldives vs China – Shenyang, September 8th, 19:35

Five days after doing battle with Hong Kong, China take on a Maldives side that has lost its first two qualifying games without scoring a goal. The game was originally supposed to be held in Male, capital city of the paradise islands, but a FIFA inspection found that the stadium was not up to international standard and so China will host the game instead.

No doubt, FIFA officials need to take regular expenses paid trips to the Maldives and various other island nations in order to check that things are up to scratch, and China have been the beneficiaries on this occasion as they have effectively been given an extra home game. And, while the CFA could be accused of being a little too accommodating to their opponents by hosting the Hong Kong match in Shenzhen, the decision to host this game in the northeastern city of Shenyang is a far less hospitable one.

As a 17-0 defeat to Iran in qualifying for the 1998 World Cup shows, The Red Snappers were once the whipping boys of international football, but they have improved immensely since then. In their first qualifying match, the Maldives held Qatar for over 97 minutes before Ahmed El Sayed gave the Gulf nation a 1-0 win with a goal eight minutes into second half stoppage time.

That impressive effort took place in Male, but Qatar’s late goal and a subsequent 2-0 loss in Hong Kong means that the nation with a population of just 400,000 has nothing to show from their first two qualifying matches. The team, which will be playing a friendly in the Philippines while China take on Hong Kong, is almost entirely domestically based.

Ali Ashfaq (7) in action for the Maldives against Qatar

Ali Ashfaq (7) in action for the Maldives against Qatar

The two exceptions to that are midfield playmaker Mohamed Arif, who plays his football in Myanmar, and striker Ali Ashfaq, who plays for Malaysian Super League outfit PDRM FA. Ashfaq has won over 100 caps for his country and bagged 41 goals, although many of those have come in low ranking competitions such as the AFC Challenge Cup and South Asian Football Championships.

In fact, based on their first two qualifiers, it now looks as though the Maldives strength may lie in a once maligned defence that has proved much tough to break down than it used to be. Indeed, the last time these two sides met on Chinese soil, China ran out 10-1 winners as part of their successful 2002 World Cup qualifying campaign.

Six days later, the Chinese eked out a 1-0 win in Male which may demonstrate the significance of this game being relocated to Shenyang. Of course, China would be expected to win regardless of the game’s location, but taking the match from the Indian Ocean islands up to the north east of China could add a couple of extra goals to the Chinese tally. The days of the Maldives shipping double figures seem to be over, but goal difference may play a role in deciding who advances, so a few extra strikes certainly couldn’t hurt.

The Squad

The Chinese squad for these two qualifiers was announced over two weeks ago and features eight changes from the 23-man group taken to Wuhan for the East Asian Cup. Four of those alterations shouldn’t come as a surprise, though, as Mei Fang, Jiang Zhipeng, Yu Hanchao and Zou Zheng all return after withdrawing from the original East Asian Cup squad through injury.

Zhang Linpeng returns to the Chinese squad following an injury

Zhang Linpeng returns to the Chinese squad following an injury

Their four replacements for the August tournament, Lei Tenglong, Rao Weihui, Zhang Chiming and Wang Tong all, apparently failed to do enough in Wuhan to merit a recall, although Wang has the excuse of being on international duty with the under-22 side. Elsewhere, Zhang Linpeng and Zhang Chengdong return to the national team set-up after being unavailable for the East Asian Cup.

Zhang Linpeng had been injured before the squad was announced and Zhang Chengdong’s move to La Liga’s Real Vallecano meant he was unavailable for a tournament played outside of official FIFA dates. The return of the Zhangs is no great surprise, but Alain Perrin has also called up two players that have never appeared under his tenure.

Guangzhou Evergrande winger Zheng Long has been rewarded for his scintillating form this season with his first international call-up since 2013, while Henan Jianye centre back and occasional makeshift striker Bi Jinhao enters the national team set up for the first time. Zheng’s return to the international scene is well deserved after fighting his way back from a season long injury to become an integral part of Evergrande’s attack in 2015.

Zheng Long celebrates a sublime free kick with outgoing Evergrande manager Fabio Cannavaro

Zheng Long celebrates a sublime free kick with outgoing Evergrande manager Fabio Cannavaro

The 27-year-old was originally brought in on loan to Evergrande from his home town club Qingdao Jonoon in the summer of 2013, before the move was made permanent at the end of the season. Unfortunately, Zheng missed the entirety of the 2014 season with a serious injury but fought his way back into the Evergrande line-up and has started each of the Super League champions’ last fourteen league games.

As well as being dangerous on the wing, Zheng also possesses a wicked free kick, which he has used to score a late equaliser in Fabio Cannavaro’s last game in charge of Evergrande against Tianjin TEDA and grab the winner against Shandong Luneng in Felipe Scolari’s first match at the helm.

Meanwhile, Bi Jinhao has really come out of nowhere to stake his claim for a place in the national squad. The 24-year-old spent most of 2014 out of the Henan line-up, but has started all but one of their league games in 2014.

Bi’s primary position has been at centre back, but Henan manager Jia Xiuquan has also deployed him as a target man striker alongside diminutive Filipino forward Javier Patino on several occasions this season. The Dalian native is far from elegant with the ball at his feet, but troubles centre backs with his physical presence and know how to find the net as he demonstrated with a two goal haul against league leading Shanghai SIPG a couple of weeks ago.

However, Bi has played the majority of games at centre back this season where he has performed solidly. It’s worth noting, though, that Henan always play with three centre backs and so Bi has little experience of playing in the middle of a back four.

Ji Xiang (14) has been left out of a China squad for the first time since December

Ji Xiang (14) has been left out of a China squad for the first time since December

Of the other players that have dropped out of the squad, the two most noteworthy are Feng Xiaoting and Ji Xiang. Feng had fought his way back into Perrin’s plans after being surprisingly dropped for January’s Asian Cup, but a less than stellar East Asian Cup from the veteran centre back seems to have convinced the French manager that the 29-year-old Feng may not be a big part of his future plans.

Ji Xiang had been somewhat of surprise call up into the Asian Cup squad, but the Jiangsu Sainty right back and sometimes winger has never fully justified his position in the national team. A torrid first half display against Japan in the final game of the East Asian Cup demonstrated that Ji may still be a little way short of international standard, and he’s even found himself on the bench for his club’s last two games.

Of the other two absentees from the East Asian Cup squad, international veteran Yu Hai is missing through injury, while pacy Shandong Luneng winger Liu Binbin has joined club teammate Wang Tong in the under-22 squad. The AFC under-23 championships, which double up as Olympic qualifiers, are taking place in Qatar next January and so a full strength squad has been called up for a pair of friendlies against Bahrain.

Long Term Outlook

A few hours after China take on Hong Kong, Qatar will play host to Bhutan in a game they are likely to win by a substantial margin. The Maroon then head east to do battle with Hong Kong in a match they will also be favourites for.

Bhutan goalkeeper Hari Gureng is likely to be equally as busy against Qatar as he was against China

Bhutan goalkeeper Hari Gureng is likely to be equally as busy against Qatar as he was against China

Presuming both of those contests go according to plan, Qatar will come out of this round of games with nine points from three games, and China must make sure they do the same. Dropped points in either of these matches could potentially mean that China will travel to Qatar in October knowing a defeat will pretty much guarantee a failure to win the group.That added pressure is something that China could do without and so it’s imperative that there are no slip-ups here.

It’s also worth noting that Indonesia’s suspension from FIFA has reduced Group F to just four teams. Who care’s is the logical response to that statement, but it means that results against the bottom side in five team groups will no longer be taken into consideration when calculating the four best runners-up who will advance to the next phase of qualification.

Barring any major upsets, that means China’s results against Bhutan will not be included should they fail to place above Qatar. This makes the margin for error against Hong Kong and Maldives even slighter and increases the significance of taking three point from both of these matches.

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.

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