China are on the verge of an early elimination from the AFC under-23 Asian Championships after losing their second game 3-1 to Syria. And there was a sense of deja vu as, just like in the opener against Qatar, China went a goal up through a Liao Lisheng free kick, only to concede three times and finish the game with ten men.
AFC Under-23 Championships Group A
Liao Lisheng 21′
Khirbin 45′ (pen), 54′
Al Baher 83′
However, unlike the Qatar match where Xu Xin’s late dismissal happened with the outcome already decided, the sending off of goalkeeper Du Jia five minute before half-time had a decisive effect on the result. Du was given his marching orders when he brought down Mahmoud Al Baher following an error from Mi Haolun.
Omar Khirbin scored the subsequent penalty before banging in an excellent strike early in the second half. Al Baher ensured victory when he scored a third late on but the truth is that an exhausted and disheartened looking Chinese side showed little prospect of grabbing an equaliser in a game that had, much like the Qatar match, started promisingly.
Liao’s 21st minute opener was from further out and struck with more precision than his dead ball strike against Qatar and it came at the end of an opening period that saw China control the ball and create a few half chances. Fu Bo’s men enjoyed 66% possession in the opening 15 minute and, although they were a little slow to play out from the back, they looked composed and were able to create a few half chances before Liao’s goal.
Centre forward Zhang Yuning hit two early shots off target, one an amusingly mishit volley which would have gone out for a throw-in had it generated enough power, and Wu Xinghan ought to have done better than to head Liao’s pinpoint corner wide of the target from close range. But just a few minutes after missing, Wu drew a foul from Abdullah Al Shami which gave Liao the opportunity to find the net himself and the Guangzhou Evergrande midfielder duly obliged.
Soon after, Liu Binbin beat vulnerable left back Moayad Ajan to get a cross into Zhang Yuning, but the 19-year-old wasn’t having a good day and could only push a very weak header towards grateful Syrian goalkeeper Abdul Latif Nassan. And, within a minute, Mahmoud Mawas was burning Mi Haolun down the right wing and blazing a shot into the side netting as the momentum started to shift.
Just after the half hour mark, Khirbin also shot wide after being set up by a Yousef Kalfa and Muayad Al Khouli then hit the underside of the bar with a piledriven long range effort. China continued to have their fair share of the game, though, as Zhang Yuning’s back header from another fine Liao corner forced a save from Nassan and Wu Xinghan produced an exhilarating dribble down the left before executing a weak, off-target shot which undermined all of his good work.
Soon after, Mi Haolun gave the ball away to Kalfa in his own penalty area, but that was just a prelude to the penalty as the Syian winger played in Al Baher who struck the outside of the post. Indeed, Mi who had also sliced a couple of basic clearances straight into the air earlier in the game, was having a shocker and things went from bad to worse for the the Shandong Luneng left back when his attempted header back to Du Jia was intercepted by Al Baher. The Tianjin TEDA goalkeeper had little option but to fell the Al-Jaish attacker as he lifted the ball over him and it is hard to argue against the referee’s decision to give a penalty.
Du’s dismissal is a little more debatable as centre back Wang Tong was covering behind him and actually cleared Al Baher’s chip, but the referee’s was decisive and China were down to ten men. Shanghai Shenxin keeper Zhang Yinuo was introduced in place of clearly disappointed winger Liu Binbin and his first task was to pick Khirbin’s emphatic penalty out of the net.
As expected, Syria dominated possession in the second period, and scored nine minutes in with their first real opportunity. Wang Tong was caught downfield as China lost possession, holding midfielder Zhao Yuhao miscalculated an attempt to intercept a through ball and Khirbin was left one on one with centre back Shi Ke. The UAE based striker needed just one touch to create the space needed to fire in a thunderous drive which beat Zhang and flew into the net off the underside of the bar.
After that, the Syrians were largely happy to keep the ball and created few clear cut chances while constantly threatening. China offered little going the other way, though, and Muhanad Al Fakeer”s men were able to grab a third seven minutes from time through Al Baher. The attacking midfielder intitially struck the post when he met the cross of left-back Moayad Ajan, but after Khirbin missed out on a hat-trick by also striking the upright with the goal gaping, Al Baher was able to push the ball home at the second time of asking.
Qatar’s 2-1 victory over Iran later in the evening means that China could still advance should they score at least three goals against the Iranians, win by a margin of two and see Syria lose to Qatar in the final round of matches. Even the most optimistic of Chinese supporters would find that outcome hard to believe and would probably just settle for a face saving performance which lasts the entire 90 minutes.
Given that the dearth of defensive talent at the left back position, it is hard to blame Fu Bo for Mi Haolun’s error and its consequences. However, questions could be raised over his response to Du Jia’s dismissal and the decision to withdraw Liu Binbin for Zhang Yinuo. It seemed to take the Chinese bench quite some time to decide on who to sacrifice and they may have made the wrong decision.
The withdrawal of a wide man rather than either Feng Gang or Zhao Yuhao in the centre of midfield meant that China shifted from a 4-1-4-1 to a narrow 4-1-3-1. If Feng or holding midfielder Zhao had been withdrawn, China could have moved to a 4-4-1 with Wu Xinghan and Liu continue to threaten from wide areas.
Of course, this would have left China a man light in the middle, but given what we had seen in the first 40 minutes, China’s best chance of scoring, aside from a Liao Lisheng set-piece, came from attacking down the wings. Al Fakeer had rightly singled out his full backs’ performances for criticism following their opening 2-0 defeat against Iran and it seems like a missed opportunity to not give Liu and Wu the chance to keep running at them in the second half.
The change of shape also allowed Syria’s full backs’ to push up and put more pressure on their opposite numbers in the Chinese team. Left back Ajan looked particularly brazen in the second half and effectively became an extra winger whose cross led to Syria’s third goal.
There were some bright spots for China with Liao Lisheng continuing to impress before worryingly being taken off injured in the second half, Yang Chaosheng showing that he had the pace to stretch defenses when he replaced Zhang Yuning up top with 20 minutes to go and Shi Ke having a very tidy game at centre back aside from giving Khirbin a little too much space for his second goal. It also shouldn’t be forgotten that this Syrian side is, despite all the problems facing their country, pretty decent in Asian terms with several players also featuring in the full national side that looks set to advance to the final round of World Cup qualifying.
None of that diminishes what has been a very poor tournament for China’s Olympic hopefuls and Fu Bo himself who could be under consideration to take over the full national team on a temporary basis after Alain Perrin’s sacking. Barring a miracle, whatever happens against Iran on Monday night is unlikely to change that.
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