China’s World Cup qualification hopes are hanging by a thread after a disappointing 1-0 defeat in Doha. A 22nd minute header from Karim Boudiaf was the difference between the sides, as China only really came to life in the final twenty minutes of the game. Despite a late volley from Yu Hanchao drifting just wide, China were unable to find an equaliser and are now five points adrift of the Qataris at Group C’s halfway stage.
World Cup Qualifying Round 2 Group C
With only the group winners guaranteed to advance to the final round of qualifying, China came into this game knowing that a loss would put them in serious jeopardy. China manager Alain Perrin set out with an accordingly conservative line-up that seemed bereft of attacking ideas and looked to be a step behind their more determined opponents.
Indeed, Boudiaf’s goal was fitting reward for Qatar’s domination of the opening exchanges which saw them enjoy over 70% possession in the first 15 minutes. The French born midfielder’s close range header came from a Boualem Khoukhi free kick that had been glanced into his path by Ji Xiang’s failed attempt at a clearing header.
A little over ten minutes earlier, another Khoukhi free kick almost provided the opening goal. On this occasion, the Al-Arabi midfielder shot straight for goal himself from 20 yards and saw his effort deflected off of the head of Mei Fang. With the ball heading for the bottom corner, China’s impressive goalkeeper Wang Dalei was able to adjust his feet in time and tip the ball around the post.
After Boudiaf’s goal, Qatar continued to control things as China’s central midfield trio of Zheng Zhi, Wu Xi and Cai Huikang failed to stamp any influence on the game. With the purely functional Ji Xiang playing on the right wing, Zheng Long on the opposite flank was the only real creative attacking force available to assist lone striker Yu Dabao, and the Guangzhou Evergrande winger failed to replicate his fantastic domestic form.
Despite having much the better of the half, Qatar were unable to create many clear cut opportunities and China almost punished them a minute before the break. Young Qatari left-back Abdelkarim Hassan gave the ball away in a dangerous area and it eventually broke to China left back Ren Hang who crossed for Yu Dabao. The Beijing Guo’an forward was able to get a firm head on the ball, but Qatar keeper Amine Lecomte proved equal to it with a fine save.
That was Yu’s best chance of the game in what was an otherwise difficult night for the player who had scored seven in his last eight international appearances prior to this game. Suffering from a lack of service, Yu’s hold up play was poor and he became increasingly anonymous as the game progressed.
It wouldn’t have been unreasonable to have expected Perrin to make changes at half-time, but the same line-up emerged in the second half to face similar struggles. We were treated to the rare shot of holding midfielder Cai Huikang firing off a long range shot two minute after the interval, but the Shanghai SIPG man hooked wide under pressure from counterpart Ahmed Mohamed Al Sayed.
Qatar looked happy to keep the ball and protect their slender lead, but they were almost gifted a second in the 57th minute when centre back Mei Fang played a slack pass that was intercepted by Al Sayed. The midfielder quickly played in striker Sebastian Suria who was baring down on goal with only Wang Dalei to beat. Fortunately for the Chinese, the Shandong Luneng keeper was able to close the ball down quickly and force the Uruguayan born striker wide before blocking his effort.
It was a rare mistake from Mei, who has been China’s most consistent centre back over the last year, but it seemed to unnerve him. Just a few minutes later, the Guangzhou Evergande man made a hash of cutting out the ball in the middle of the field, and it was worked wide for Al Sayed who crossed in.
The ball was headed out by Mei’s club teammate Zhang Linpeng, who looked comfortable despite shifting from right of defence to the middle, but it only went as far as right back Mohammed Musa who fired in a powerful effort from 25 yards. Wang was able to parry Musa’s fizzer, but Mei failed to control the rebound and let it trickle behind the goal line for an unnecessary corner.
The subsequent delivery of captain Hassan Al Haidos led to a frantic scramble which finally resulted in Abdelrakim Hassan shooting from eight yards. Wang was once again able to block the effort, but it was a sequence which demonstrated China’s vulnerability.
Yu Hanchao had come on for Zheng Long just before the corner was taken, but it made little difference in the short term. In the 67th minute, a wonderful cross field ball from Hassan in the left-back position to Al Haidos on the right wing may have caused China a lot more problems had the Al-Sadd winger opted to cross rather than shoot high and wide from an improbable angle.
In the 70th minute, a decent cross from left-back Ren Hang went unrewarded when Yu Hanchao’s head made contact with centre back Ahmed Yasser, rather than the ball, but the game really started to turn in China’s favour when Wu Lei was introduced in place of SIPG teammate Cai Huikang a couple of minutes later. The change was clearly a positive one and China looked far better going forward after the introduction of the 23-year-old attacker.
In the 76th minute, a fine through ball from Wu Xi to Yu Dabao was only snuffed out by an excellent tackle from Yasser, and Wu Xi and Zheng Zhi both produced blocked long range efforts shortly after. In the 80th minute, right back Zhang Chengdong was replaced by Sun Ke after apparently suffering some sort of muscle pull.
The Rayo Vallecano player had looked out of sorts all game and failed to demonstrate his usual penchant of roaming up and down the flank for 90 minutes. That may have been a result of a lack of match fitness stemming from a failure to take the field since moving to Vallecano in August, but it may also have been a result of being pinned back by the relentless Hassan. The 22-year-old left back never stopped running and was even seen in the right wing position and closing down Wang Dalei at different points in the game.
Sun’s introduction meant Ji Xiang dropping to right back in what would have been a relief to many hoping China would find an equaliser. The Jiangsu Sainty player’s inclusion on the right wing could only have been for the purposes of defensive cover, and he offered nothing to China’s attack.
Ji’s Jiangsu teammate Sun is a far more dangerous winger, but he didn’t have any time to make his presence felt as China’s only other real chance fell to Yu Hanchao in the 86th minute. The Guangzhou Evergrande winger had been hovering on the edge of the box on a corner and reacted to a headed clearance by firing in a volley that flew agonisingly wide of the Qatar post.
The full time whistle was greeted with cheers by the small but noisy home crowd and marked the end of a game that Qatar thoroughly deserved to win. China have every right to claim that they were unlucky to drop points to Hong Kong last month, but there was nothing unlucky about the defeat here.
Qatar put in an excellent performance, but the Chinese players just didn’t seem as motivated as their opponents until things got desperate later it the game. The Qatari midfield trio of Karim Boudiaf, Ahmed Mohamed Al Sayed and Ali Asadalla comprehensively out played Zheng Zhi, Wu Xi and Cai Huikang in the first half and, with Akram Arif on in place of Asadalla, did enough to stem the build up of Chinese momentum in the second period.
The Qataris seemed to be first to every 50-50 and were just that little bit more physical than their visitors. With Al Sayed dropping between the centre back when in possession, Qatar frequently pushed full backs Musa and Hassan far up the pitch, and the Chinese were unable to counter quickly enough to take advantage of any space that created.
The result piles pressure on China manager Alain Perrin who celebrated his birthday the day before the game. The draw with Hong Kong might have been forgotten with a positive result here but, as it stands, China have now slipped behind Hong Kong in the table on goal difference and are the only top seed across the eight groups to find themselves in third place (tables here).
Hoping that Qatar drop points at home to Hong Kong or away to Bhutan or the Maldives is a futile exercise, and so China’s focus must now turn to securing second in the group instead. The four group runners-up with best record against the top four teams in their group will advance to the final round.
At the halfway stage of this round, China have the second worst record among those in the runners-up position. So it appears that China need to win all four of their remaining games in order to have any chance of progressing.
With an away game in Hong Kong coming up next month and a reverse fixture with Qatar taking place next March, that will not be an easy task. But it’s one that Perrin probably needs to carry out if he still wants to be in charge of China on his 60th birthday.
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