A brace from Yu Dabao and a Zhang Linpeng header gave China a comfortable, if uninspiring, 3-0 victory over the Maldives in Shenyang. After last Thursday’s frustrating stalemate against Hong Kong, an early opener from Yu Dabao relaxed Chinese nerves and made this contest into a far more pedestrian affair.
Asian World Cup Qualifying Group C
Yu Dabao 7′, 57′
Zhang Linpeng 66′
This game was originally supposed to be played in Male, but was moved to China due to an unplayable pitch in the Maldivian capital. The CFA took advantage of that situation by scheduling the game to be played in the northeast of the country, and Yu Dabao took advantage of a 7th minute error from Maldives goalkeeper Imran Mohamed to score a 25-yard lob that bounced in off the bar.
The early goal ensured that there would be no repeat of a display which saw China take 39 shots against Hong Kong without once finding the net. However, with China sometimes looking lackadaisical in attack, two headers direct from Zheng Long corners were needed in the second half in order to expand the scoreline.
The first came courtesy of Yu in the 57th minute and the second came via the cranium of Zhang nine minutes later. China were guilty of squandering other opportunities to extend the lead, but a 3-0 win over a side which held Qatar for 97 minutes before succumbing to a stoppage time winner back in June is a perfectly acceptable result.
Despite China’s failure to break Hong Kong down, manager Alain Perrin only made two changes from Thursday’s team with Yang Xu coming in for Wu Lei and Zou Zheng replacing Jiang Zhipeng at left back. Zou was handed his international debut following a very unconvincing performance from Jiang last Thursday, while the withdrawal of attacking midfielder Wu meant that China took to the field in a 4-4-2 with Yang partnering Yu Dabao up top.
With Yu often dropping deep, Yang was left up as more of a target man, and the strategy paid dividends within seven minutes thanks to some erratic goalkeeping from Mohamed. Right back Zhang Linpeng sought out Yang with a deep cross which the Maldives keeper ought to have claimed comfortably.
Instead, the 34-year-old flapped the ball towards Yu who still had a lot to do. At full stretch, the Beijing Guo’an forward was able to hook the ball back in towards the open goal and it dipped just in time to hit the underside of the bar and go in. As well as being a fine improvised finish, it was a sign that China’s luck had improved as they had struck the woodwork four times against Hong Kong with every effort ricocheting in the wrong direction.
The goal may have settled Chinese nerves, but it hardly ushered in a period of enthralling attacking play as the Maldives organised well to stifle potential forward thrusts. Centre back Shfiu Ahmed looked particularly commanding in the first half as China controlled possession, but failed to consistently bombard the opposition goal as they had in their previous match.
There were chances here and there in the opening 45, but China had to wait until stoppage time before really going close to increasing their score. First, Wu Xi’s long range shot deflected off of Yu Dabao on its way into the box, forcing Mohamed into a good reaction save. Then, Yang Xu was able to head a deep ball across the penalty area to Yu, who took too long to control it before firing a weak shot straight at Mohamed.
Part of China’s problem in the first half was that they had tried to be a little too intricate in their build-up play, and they seemed to take a more direct approach after the interval. Within two minutes of the restart it had almost paid off as Ahmed uncharacteristically misjudged a long ball, letting it drift over him and into Yang Xu’s path. It looked as though the Shandong Luneng striker expected the Maldivian centre back to deal with the delivery and so he failed to control the ball when it dropped to him with just the goalkeeper to beat.
Within a minute, Yang had sprung Yu Hanchao through on goal with a neat flick, only for the left winger to fire his close range effort to close to the goalkeeper. Yang’s follow-up was blocked and the ball eventually fell to Zheng Long who fired wide from 20 yards.
In the 55th minute, Zou Zheng was able to send over a good cross following excellent work from Zheng Zhi in the midfield, but Yang couldn’t keep his header down. Within two minutes of Yang’s miss, the Maldives launched a rare attack as a long ball allowed right winger Ahmed Nashid to show a surprising turn of pace which burned Zou Zheng and led to him pulling a shot just wide when one on one with Wang Dalei.
The Maldives hadn’t scored in their four previous matches in 2015, but that brief attacking flash demonstrated China’s need for a second goal to secure the result, and it duly arrived as Yu Dabao headed in Zheng Long’s pinpoint corner just two minutes later. As was the case against Hong Kong, the former Dalian Aerbn player hadn’t had a particularly good game, but he was still able to find the net twice to take his 2015 international scoring tally up to seven goals in eight appearances.
Yu’s second strike ended any realistic hopes of a Maldives fight back, although lone forward Hussein Niyaz Mohamed briefly sprung into life when he fired a 20-yard shot wide and then got centre back Mei Fang booked by drawing a foul a few minutes later. That was as good as it got for the Maldives, however, as yet another fantastic Zheng Long corner was met by the powerful header of Guangzhou Evergrande teammate Zhang Linpeng in the 66th minute.
Zhang’s effort gave Mohamed no chance in the Maldivian goal and also helped validate Zheng Long’s inclusion in two consecutive China starting line-ups after an absence form the national team set-up of almost two years. The winger struggled to get into the game against Hong Kong, and he looked as though he was trying too hard to make things happen in the first half of this match.
But an improved second half, punctuated by two assists, will do Zheng’s case for a regular international starting role no harm at all. Meanwhile, Zheng’s Evergrande teammate Zou Zheng had a mixed debut where he looked effective going forward from left back, but was defensively exposed on two or three separate occasions.
China could have added more to the their total later in the game. Zheng Zhi fired a volley wide from a position where he would normally expect to hit the target, and Yu Dabao should have had a hat-trick when second half substitute Wang Yongpo nodded Zheng Zhi’s delicately lifted through ball into his path. Yu fired a weak effort straight at Mohamed, and the Shenyang crowd had to settle for just the three goals as attention turned to the Hong Kong vs Qatar game that had kicked off 25 minutes later than this one.
Chinese fans hoping Hong Kong would achieve a result against Qatar were left disappointed as the Qataris were 2-0 up within 62 minutes. A powerful first-half header from Karim Boudiaf was followed up by a strike from left back Abdelkarim Hasan. Fellow full back Mohammed Musa looked to have completed a rout when he netted Qatar’s third in the 84th minute.
Remarkably, though, Hong Kong almost fought back with a couple of mainland based players grabbing late goals. A header from Shijiazhuang Ever Bright’s Bai He was followed up by a goal from Beijing BG’s Godfred Karikari, but Hong Kong were unable to find an injury time equaliser and ultimately lost 3-2.
That result in means that China are two points behind the Qataris with each side having played three games. Last Thursday, the Gulf nation made China’s earlier 6-0 defeat of Bhutan look like child’s play when they demolished the Himalayan side 15-0 in Doha, giving them a significant advantage in terms of goal difference. (link to the table here)
All of this means that China absolutely have to avoid defeat when they face Qatar in Doha on October 8th. A draw will be fine as long as the Chinese are able to win the reverse fixture in Xi’an next March. But a defeat will leave them five points adrift and needing Qatar to make a serious slip in order to take top spot in the group.
Next month’s task won’t be helped by the suspension of Zheng Zhi who picked up his second booking of the qualifying competition when he was wrongly penalised for diving in the dying minutes against the Maldives. That booking may be overturned on appeal but, with or without Zheng, China face a difficult task next month which hasn’t been made any easier by tonight’s results.
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