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Under-23 Asian Championships: 3-2 loss to Iran eliminates China and causes fear for the future

China’s first round elimination from the AFC under-23 Asian Championships was confirmed on Monday night following a 3-2 defeat to Iran in Doha.

A game that was far duller than the scoreline suggests was brought to life in the latter stages of the first half when three goals in four minutes left China trailing 2-1 at the interval. During that spell, Chang Feiya scored a fine solo strike in between goals from Amir Motahari and Ehsan Pahlavan, but Iran’s victory was all but assured three minutes after the restart thanks to Mehdi Torabi’s excellent free kick. And with Fu Bo’s men failing to rouse any sort of a fightback, Liao Lisheng’s 70th minute penalty never looked like being anything more than a consolation.

AFC Under-23 Champioships Group A

China 2
Chang Feiya 40′
Liao Lisheng(pen) 70′

Iran 3
Motahari 38′
Pahlavan 41′
Torabi 48′

Even if China did find an undeserved equaliser, it would not have been enough to take them through to the quarter-finals as earlier 3-1 defeats to Qatar and Syria meant they needed a victory of two clear goals to stand any hope of finishing in the top two of the four team group. Instead, they leave Qatar with a record of three games played, three defeats and nine goals conceded. Of the 16 teams in this tournament, only the one from war torn Yemen has finished with a worse record, although Vietnam could also “beat” China with a heavy defeat against the UAE tonight.

The night wasn’t all bad for a China side featuring four changes from the one that lost to Syria, but it was clear from the early stages that Iran were the superior team. The recently crowned under-23 West Asian champions dominated possession early in the game while failing to create any decent chances.

Pahlavan fired an early shot into the stands and Motahari would have opened his account in the 27th minute had he gotten a touch on Torabi’s cross. That chance was created when goalkeeper Zhang Yinuo, replacing the suspended Du Jia, gave the ball straight to Torabi and typified the nervousness which blighted China’s back five. Among them, only centre back Wang Tong made it through the game without passing directly to the opposition or hacking a clearance straight up into the air as Zhang Xiaobin, Mi Haolun and Jin Yangyang, replacing Shi Ke at centre back, were all guilty of schoolboy mistakes.

As the first half wore on, China did begin to show signs of ambition and went close in the 36th minute when Wang Qiuming prodded Mi Haolun’s free kick straight at goalkeeper Mohaamadreza Akhbari. Wang had been brought into the starting line-up to replace the knock-carrying Liao Lisheng in a move that saw China shift from a 4-1-4-1 to a 4-2-3-1, but this was the Tianjin TEDA midfielder’s only real contribution in an otherwise anonymous display just behind the striker.

Wang’s chance ushered in a six minute period of excitement and a few moments later, Pahlavan was firing a shot straight at Zhang Yinuo after a neat one-two with Milad Kamandani. But Iran hardly had to wait a minute more for their opening goal which came after Zhang was unable to hold Reza Aliari’s powerful low cross. The spilled ball struck Jin Yangyang’s legs and was immediately poached by Motahari who was gifted with a much easier goal than the brilliant solo one he scored against Syria in Iran’s opener.

Even the referee can't stop Chang Feiya who scored China's first goal with after a neat dribble

Even the referee can’t stop Chang Feiya who scored China’s first goal with after a neat dribble

And Motahari may have been reminded of that earlier strike less than two minutes later when he saw Chang Feiya beat both Aliari and Hossein Kanaani on the right-wing before scoring with a heavily deflected effort. Chang’s shot took a massive ricochet off of Rouzbeh Cheshmi which left Akhbari with no chance, but the goal was a just reward for the fine dribble that preceded it. Indeed, Chang looked a real threat on those rare occasions when China were on the attack and justified Fu Bo’s decision to give him his first start of the tournament in place of Wu Xinghan.

Unfortunately, the old adage that you’re at you’re must vulnerable to conceding just after you’ve scored was proven right on this occasion as Iran attacked straight from the kick-off and restored their lead through Pahlavan. The Zob Ahan winger picked the ball up on the edge of the Chinese area, took a touch to give him some separation from Zhang Xiaobin and aimed a powerful effort past Zhang Yinuo.

Fu made two changes at half-time, bringing on Liao Lisheng and Xie Pengfei for the disappointing duo of Zhao Yuhao and Liu Binbin, but Torabi’s free kick killed off China less than three minutes into the second period. The chance came after Wang Qiuming lost possession and committed a foul trying to win it back. This allowed Torabi to produce a fine swerving effort which brushed off of Zhang Yinuo’s outstretched hand and the underside of the bar on its way in.

Mi Haolun is brought down for China's consolation penalty

Mi Haolun is brought down for China’s consolation penalty

The game then settled back into the same dull rhythm it had started with and China looked destined for a third consecutive 3-1 loss until Ali Abdollahzadeh’s rash penalty area challenge brought down Mi Haolun with the Iranian goal in little danger. Given his two free kick goals in China’s previous two games, it was no surprise that Liao Lisheng comfortably dispatched the penalty, but it ultimately meant little as the contest continued to peter out with Iran rarely looking threatened.

After spending most of the second half watching the game in what appeared to be a confused silence, Fu Bo attended the post-match press conference and said that “we created this team in 2013 with the plan to fight for this championship, but the result isn’t satisfying.” While few expected China to claim the top three finish needed for Olympic qualification, let alone win the whole competition, Fu is certainly correct in pointing out the unsatisfactory nature of the outcome.

In our tournament preview we said that cause for optimism could be found if “China’s players demonstrate an ability to handle pressure that their senior counterparts have been lacking for years. This includes the ability to look comfortable in possession, demonstrate patience in build-up play, pass confidently out of defence and take chances when they are presented.”

A lack of goal scoring opportunities created means it may be hard to criticize the team on the last point, but they certainly failed to do anything to suggest they do not carry the other traits that have blighted the senior teams in recent years. To varying degrees, all three games in this tournament have demonstrated that these players can look good when things are going their way, but crumble when they aren’t.

Waving Goodbye? Fu Bo may take the blame for China's poor performances

Waving Goodbye? Fu Bo may take the blame for China’s poor performances

Eighteen of this squad have at least a season’s worth of Super League experience under their belt and this specific group of players has played a number of friendlies and mini-tournaments together throughout 2015. Given the tournament’s age limitations, this makes any excuses about inexperience invalid.

Meanwhile, simply blaming Fu Bo is an option being taken by some in the Chinese media. The 50-year-old certainly made mistakes, especially in his handling of rearranging China’s formation after Du Jia’s sending off against Syria, and he generally seemed to lack the ability to galvanise his team with any sort of plan B, but it’s hard to hold him responsible for the numerous individual errors made by members of his squad.

Indeed, the players themselves have to take their share of the responsibility as, with a few exceptions, they greatly under performed. Liao Lisheng continued to justify the hype surrounding him in 2014 before he missed most of last season through injury, Chang Feiya made the most of his only start on the wing and Wu Xinghan looked a constant threat from wide areas without offering much in the way of end product.

Otherwise, few players can leave this tournament feeling they have given a good showing, and that raises questions over whether a lack of talent is responsible or a failure to perform under pressure. The likes of Liu Binbin, Wang Tong and Shi Ke certainly performed below the levels they’ve shown on the Super League and AFC Champions’ League stage, but the jury is out on the long term prospects of many other members of the squad.

Only three of the squad were born later than 1993 and only one, promising but raw centre forward Zhang Yuning, will be valid for the Tokyo Olympics in four years time. Of course, footballers still have a lot of potential for development after the age of 22, but at this stage the Chinese players look a long way behind those on a team like Qatar, who won all three of their group games with a squad including several full internationals from the team which recently beat China in World Cup qualifying.

With the full Chinese national team about to go through another phase of rebuilding following the recent sacking of Alain Perrin, there is little sign that this new generation of players offers a brighter future. And that is a far more serious problem than not making the Olympics.

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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