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2018 WC Qualifying Preview: Six points essential from games against Bhutan and Hong Kong

After falling to Qatar last time out, China resume their World Cup qualifying campaign when they host Bhutan in Changsha this Thursday. But with that result in little doubt, Guozu’s real focus is on next Tuesday’s clash in Hong Kong where a repeat of September’s 0-0 draw would pretty much eliminate China from contention for a spot in Russia. Here, WEF takes looks ahead to both of China’s upcoming clashes as well as highlighting the major issues surrounding a squad that has welcomed back Zhang Xizhe and Huang Bowen after long absences, but also includes nine exhausted Guangzhou Evergrande players.

Setting the Scene

After October’s disappointing 1-0 defeat against a solid Qatar side, China lie third in Group C and desperately need to take all six points in their upcoming fixtures. The qualifying campaign started out well enough with a 6-0 win in Bhutan back in June, but the group’s top seeds then welcomed Hong Kong to Shenzhen and were held to a goalless draw despite having 39 shots at goal.

Karim Boudiaf's goal for Qatar has put a serious dent in China's qualifying campaign

Karim Boudiaf’s goal for Qatar has put a serious dent in China’s qualifying campaign

A 3-0 win over the Maldives a few days later failed to inspire confidence, but it meant things would have remained in Chinese hands had they picked up a point in Doha. In the event, a good performance from the Qataris was supplemented by an overly conservative approach from China manager Alain Perrin and a first half header from Karim Boudiaf proved enough to put the Middle Easterners in the Group C driving seat.

As it stands, China are eight points adrift of The Maroon and have little chance of catching them. With only the group winners guaranteed to advance into the final twelve, China’s best chance of progressing now lies with being placed among the top four runners-up from the eight qualification groups.

Currently, China sit in third place (table here), three points behind Hong Kong, but have a game in hand and will go above the Special Administrative Region if they beat them next Tuesday. The problem is that, even if China go above Hong Kong, their current record, which doesn’t take games against the group’s bottom team into account, is the worst among second placed teams.

In short, China can’t afford to drop any more points and the pressure is on Perrin. The Frenchman gained a lot of currency for guiding China into the quarter-finals of January’s Asian Cup, but has come under increasing criticism since the loss in Qatar. Anything other than a six point haul in these games will jeapordise Perrin’s job and seriously endanger China’s World Cup dream.

China vs Bhutan

To say that China are favourites to win this is an understatement of epic proportions. Odds of a Chinese victory are listed as 1/41 by Irish bookmaker Paddy Power and anything other than a three point haul in Changsha would be an unprecedented disaster for the hosts.

Yang Xu bagged a hat-trick last time China met Bhutan

Yang Xu bagged a hat-trick last time China met Bhutan

A Yang Xu hat-trick spurred on what was considered a relatively modest 6-0 drubbing in the reverse fixture played in June. A few days before that game, the Bhutanese had shipped seven in Hong Kong and were trounced 15-0 in Qatar a couple of months later in a game featuring spectacularly naive defending from their full backs.

However, two subsequent matches in Thimpu have suggested that China did well to bag a six goal victory 2,320 metres above sea-level. Since the side from the Himalayan Kingdom got spanked in Qatar, they have lost by a one goal margin at home to both the Maldives and Hong Kong.

The Bhutanese had been 4-0 down to the Maldives with five minutes remaining before a remarkable late rally saw them finally succumb 4-3. They then held Hong Kong for 87 minutes before Chan Siu Ki headed in a late winner for the Special Administrative Region.

These results may be a sign that Bhutan are not to be taken lightly at home, but they also emphasise how dreadful the side currently ranked 180th in the world are on the road. China may have only managed six last time out, but it wouldn’t be a surprise to see Alain Perrin’s men reaching double figures on this occasion.

The problem is, that with Bhutan all but guaranteed to finish bottom of the group, results against them won’t count when determining the four best runners-up and so, barring a Qatar slip-up at home to Hong Kong or China once again being held by their “little brothers”, goal difference won’t be a factor in deciding whether or not Alain Perrin’s men advance to the next round of qualifying.

Indeed, there is a good chance that the French manager may rest a lot of Guangzhou Evergrande players for this game given that the Super League champions played in an AFC Champions’ League final first leg in Dubai last Saturday. It’s also reasonable to assume that whoever is on the field will take their collective foot off the gas once a decent sized lead has been accumulated in order to preserve their energy for the more challenging task of upending Hong Kong five days later.

Hong Kong vs China

Over 30 years ago, Hong Kong sprung a major surprise when they eliminated China from qualification for the 1986 Mexico World Cup. Of course, that monumental occasion referenced a lot when the qualifying draw was made back in April, but few genuinely expected a repeat this time around.

Mr Lonely: Hong Kong striker Jaimes McKee (22) cut an isolated figure when Hong Kong faced China in Shenzhen

Mr Lonely: Hong Kong striker Jaimes McKee (22) cut an isolated figure when Hong Kong faced China in Shenzhen

However, if the Hong Kongers win in the Maldives on Thursday, they could officially eliminate China with a win on Tuesday night. That would obviously be a major surprise, but if Hong Kong can muster the same combination of hard work and luck they perfected when the sides drew in September you wouldn’t rule it out.

On that night in Shenzhen, Hong Kong put nine men behind the ball and left lone(ly) striker Jaimes McKee to toil up front by himself. The African born centre back duo of Festus Baise and Jean-Jacques Kilama defended heroically, goalkeeper and captain Yapp Hung Fai puled off some fine saves and the whole team worked their socks off in order to earn a point.

This time around, Hong Kong are the home side and may be encouraged to be a bit more positive. However, the decision to hold the game in the 7,000 capacity Mong Kok stadium (for reasons discussed here) eliminates the possibility of a huge crowd spurring Hong Kong into showing an attacking verve that was absent in Shenzhen.

What could make the difference, though, is the recent naturalisation of three of club side Kitchee’s previously foreign players. Nigerian born Alex Akande has joined native Brazilians Paulinho (not the former Tottenham one) and Sandro (not the former Tottenham one, either) in acquiring a Hong Kong passport, and the trio all made their debut in a 5-0 friendly victory over Myanmar on Saturday.

Hong Kong's Godfred Karikari (11) will miss this game through injury

Hong Kong’s Godfred Karikari (11) will miss this game through injury

Myanmar are by no means top class opposition, but both Akande and Sandro got on the score sheet and it’s clear China will have to take these new “acquisitions” into account when planning for this game. One player who won’t have to be considered, though, is Beijing BG’s Godfred Karikari who will miss the clash through injury. The China League One winger worked incredibly hard the last time these two sides met and Zhang Linpeng, or whoever plays right back for China, will be happy to see him gone.

A China eliminating victory for Hong Kong is unlikely here, but the real danger for Perrin’s men is being held to another draw. Last time out, China looked comfortable as they dominated the first half, but became increasingly impatient in the second period when the breakthrough didn’t come.

It’s not unfeasible that we could see a similar scenario unfolding this time around, with China failing to find an early breakthrough and crumbling as the pressure mounts later in the game. However, Hong Kong’s poor performance in Bhutan demonstrates that Kim Pan-gon’s men are still a long way below China’s level and the visitor’s should be able to come away with a win providing they can keep their heads together.

The Squad

Countless Chinese football fans breathed a sigh of relief when Perrin’s squad was announced for this round of games as it included two popular players that have been in the international wilderness for over a year. The absence of Guangzhou Evergrande midfielder Huang Bowen and Beijing Guo’an winger Zhang Xizhe have been used as sticks with which to beat Perrin with when the team doesn’t play well and, after the defeat in Qatar, clamour for their return went into overdrive.

Good To Be Back: Zhang Xizhe returns to the national squad after over a year

Good To Be Back: Zhang Xizhe returns to the national squad after more than a year

Neither man has featured for China since Perrin’s first game in charge, a 3-1 Asian Cup qualifying defeat to Iraq in March 2014, and it looked as though the Frenchman may stubbornly exclude them for the duration of his tenure as boss of the China national team. Indeed, whatever Perrin saw that made him turn against Huang and Zhang, it was enough for him to keep them out of his plans for over eighteen months. Both players are widely considered to be among the best in China, and it’s long been considered strange that the former Portsmouth manager has sought to prevent them from representing their country.

Zhang had an excellent 2013 in the Super League and, although he dropped off a little last season, was among China’s best attacking talent last year as well. A move to Wolfsburg of the Bundesliga last winter resulted in six months without first team football which could have been used to justify Zhang’s absence from the national team set up if Zhang Chengdong had not remained a regular despite not getting a minute of first team action since moving to Rayo Vallecano in August.

Zhang returned to Guo’an in the summer and has looked sharper and sharper as the season moved towards its conclusion. There have been no such concerns surrounding Huang who has played a key role in binding together an injury ravaged Evergrande side on their march to a fifth straight Super League title.

Patriot: Huang Bowen will be given the chance to represent China for the first time in more than a year

Patriot: Huang Bowen will be given the chance to represent China for the first time in more than a year

China and Evergrande captain Zheng Zhi may have just ridden his reputation to make the shortlist for the Asian Footballer of the Year award, but Huang has been pivotal to the Cantonese side’s success this season. There are few who can deny that the player who spent a season and a half in the K-League with Jeonbuk Motors is one of China’s best central midfielders and his return to the national team set-up will be welcomed by almost everybody.

Two other major returns to the international fold since the last squad was announced in October are Shanghai SIPG winger Yu Hai and Guangzhou Evergrande centre back Feng Xiaoting. Yu missed the last squad though injury and his return was never in doubt, but Feng was a late edition thanks to the withdrawal of Jiangsu Sainty’s Ji Xiang and Sun Ke through injury.

Feng is a 47 cap veteran who was surprisingly omitted from this year’s Asian Cup squad and has been in and out of national team set-up since. At club level, the 30-year-old is regularly chosen at centre back over Perrin favourite Mei Fang, but his presence in the national team has been diminished since Perrin took over.

Otherwise, the 24-man squad features no other changes since last time as Beijing Guo’an winger Zhang Chiming was given a late recall thanks to Sun Ke’s injury. That means the other big story is the continuing exile of Gao Lin who was left out of the last squad thanks to a bad attitude. Among active players, only Zheng Zhi has more caps than Gao, but the long term absences of Zhang Xizhe and Huang Bowen suggest that the Evergrande striker could potentially face a protracted spell on the international sidelines.

As mentioned above, one other thing to bear in mind is the inclusion of nine Guangzhou Evergrande players in the squad. Given that seven of them started in Saturday’s 0-0 draw with Al-Ahli, we can expect a starting XI to take the field against Bhutan that is light on Evergrandees. But, with the key game against Hong Kong coming just four days before the continental final’s second leg, there will be plenty of club versus country tension brewing in the southeast.

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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