Jiang Ning scored a hat-trick in his first international since November 2013, as China secured a 4-0 victory that just about keeps them in the hunt for a spot in the final round of World Cup qualifying. After China scored twice in the first twelve minutes, a slaughter looked imminent, but tremendous wastefulness in front of goal and a lacklustre period in the second half meant the Wuhan crowd had to wait until the final seven minutes to see Jiang add another couple to China’s tally and complete his treble.
2018 FIFA World Cup Qualifying, Asian Section, Round 2, Group C
Jiang Ning 3′, 84′, 90′
Yang Xu 12′
The Hebei CFFC winger opened the scoring as early as the second minute when he headed in a Wu Lei cross and Yang Xu doubled China’s lead ten minutes later with a goal made in Shandong. Yang headed in a lifted cross from club teammate Zhao Mingjian after the right-back had been played in by fellow Shandong Luneng employee Hao Junmin.
But, despite his goal, Yang was as guilty as anyone of squandering chances as China wasted a slew of opportunities to increase their lead. Just a couple of minutes after replacing the injured Yu Hai midway through the first half, Gao Lin struck the post despite being gifted the opportunity by a weak back header from Maldives right back Abdulla Ahmed and goalkeeper Mohamed Imran sliiping as he set his feet to make the save.
Indeed, Imran, who it had earlier been reported would been unavailable through injury, made a string of decent saves, especially from Wu Lei who had four shots on target kept out by the 30-year-old stopper. Wu’s finishing left a lot to be desired but he did produce several fine crosses, including the ball which set up Gao Lin’s acrobatic 38th minute scissor kick that fizzed wide.
There were other first half chances, and China’s dominance continued in the early phases of the second period. Less than five minutes after the interval Gao Lin had the ball in the net after bundling in the rebound from Wu Lei’s saved shot. However, the Guangzhou Evergrande man was in an offside position when Wu fired in his initial effort and the assistant referee rightly ruled it out.
After that, the game sank into something of a lull and was only briefly brought to life when Yang Xu wasted a golden opportunity after Gao Lin knocked the ball down for him in the 72nd minute. Yang fired way over when on the stretch and he also blasted a 16-yard volley well off-target when he had plenty of time to set himself just a minute later.
The 30,000+ in attendance began to show their disapproval and it wasn’t long before a loud chant for the head of CFA President Cai Zhenhua caught the imagination. The atmosphere turned more positive when Jiang added his second after being played in by substitute Yu Dabao, and the Hebei CFFC winger’s third, a 20-yard rocket as the clock ticked into injury time, put a bit of gloss onto the scoreline.
Chinese Team (4-2-3-1): Zeng Cheng; Zhao Mingjian, Feng Xiaoting, Ren Hang, Li Xuepeng; Wu Xi (Huang Bowen 45′), Hao Junmin; Jiang Ning, Wu Lei (Yu Dabao 64′), Yu Hai (Gao Lin 23′); Yang Xu
It’s easy to be critical and say China should have won by more in the first game of Gao Hongbo’s second game in charge, but it should be remembered that the Maldives are not the absolute pushovers they used to be and that Guozu have matched the score that runaway group winners Qatar managed at home to the unfancied island nation. Defensively, the visitors were a shambles in the opening 20 minutes but they tightened things up significantly and played a role in preventing the Chinese from running wild.
However, better finishing would have seen Gao’s men rack up the score, with Wu Lei and Yang Xu being especially guilty of blowing good chances. When they face Qatar in Xi’an next Tuesday China will be lucky to get a third of the opportunities they did tonight and efficiency in front of goal remains a worry for a team that hasn’t scored once in three games against the two best teams in the group.
There are causes for optimism, though, as Jiang Ning had clearly found his shooting boots and Wu Lei shone as a provider, if not a finisher. On his international debut, right-back Zhao Mingjian looked nervous on the defensive side of things but he got forward a lot and provided some key crosses. Left back Li Xuepeng also spent a lot of time in the Maldives half, but he was unable to provide many useful balls.
Hao Junmin did fine as a string-puller in midfield, but he will get nothing like the time he did last night when Qatar are the opposition. Hao’s central midfield partner Wu Xi had a hard time of things after playing the through ball which sprang Wu Lei to cross for the opener, and was replaced by Huang Bowen just before half-time. The Jiangsu Suning midfielder was apparently carrying some sort of injury when he was withdrawn, but it wouldn’t have been a a great shock had the change been tactical.
Defensively, there was little to do, but those rare times when the Maldives were on the attack provided cause for concern. On separate occasions centre back Feng Xiaoting and Zhao Mingjian were caught way out of position trying and failing to snuff out a Maldivian counter-attack near the half-way line and both times the visitors created chances which would have been buried by a stronger side.
That is a massive concern given that China have to win next Tuesday and will leave themselves increasingly vulnerable should they fail to find an early breakthrough and need to push further up the field. Qatar have the tools to be devastating on the break and the likes of Feng and Zhao will have to pick their battles carefully to avoid leaving China exposed.
On the whole, though, this is not a performance or result that can be looked upon too pessimistically. When these sides met in Shenyang last September, China produced a 3-0 victory, but were far less dominant than they were here. There are certainly some signs of improvement, but it may not be enough to take the team through.
So with just one round of games left we now know that China absolutely must beat Qatar to have any possibility of advancing and that they are still heavily reliant on results elsewhere in order to progress through to the final round as one of the four best runners-up. The Qataris maintained their 100% record with a comfortable 2-0 win at home to Hong Kong on Thursday night and, as alluded to in our preview, China’s best hope may be that the Maroon show up in Xi’an without the motivation to get a result.
Should Gao’s men get the win, it’s now clear what needs to happen elsewhere, with the attention being on groups A, B, F and H. As group E’s Syria are already certain to have a better runners-up record than China, Guozu need at least two results involving teams in those other four groups to go their way if they are to sneak into the final round.
In group A, the United Arab Emirates will be all but guaranteed to place above the Chinese with a draw at home to Saudi Arabia. Should that happen, China could still finish level on points with the Asian Cup semi-finalists, but would need an impossible seven goal win over Qatar to place above the UAE.
In the other three groups, Jordan, North Korea and Iraq will all rank above China with a win, but could slip behind them with a draw or defeat. The most likely team to fail in that quest are Harry Redknapp’s Jordan who must travel to Australia to face last year’s Asian Cup winners. North Korea also face an away trip, but they will fancy their chances of victory against the Philippines in Manila. Iraq, meanwhile, “host” Vietnam on the neutral territory of Tehran, Iran.
It is also still worth noting that FIFA have greatly complicated matters by suspending Kuwait, who currently sit second in group G, without taking a decision over whether they will be reinstated. Should the Kuwaitis be expelled from the competition and all their results wiped out, third placed Lebanon would be bumped up to second and could finish with a better record that China with a win at home to Myanmar.
Putting that scenario to one side for now, it’s not unfeasible that Jordan and North Korea fail to pick up away wins, or that the UAE suffer defeat at home to the table-topping Saudis. It still remains a lot to hope for, though, and all China can really do is to focus on beating a very good Qatar side.
Table of runners-up (results against bottom sides not calculated – best four advance)
Pld GF GA GD PTS
Syria 5 14 6 +8 12
UAE 5 14 3 +12 10
Jordan 5 8 2 +6 10
North Korea 5 8 5 +3 10
Iraq 5 12 6 +6 9
China 5 7 1 +6 8
Key Fixtures (all Tuesday March 29th – kickoffs Beijing Time)
China vs Qatar (20:15)
UAE vs Saudi Arabia (23:00)
Australia vs Jordan (17:00)
Philippines vs North Korea (20:00)
Iraq vs Vietnam (22:00)
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