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Pub Talk: China’s world cup qualifying success – celebrate or castigate?

This week its all positivity and love in the pub as your dynamic pair reflect on a job well done by China getting to the final stage of World Cup qualifying – jump straight in and order a pint!


Shanghai Ultra: Greetings B, spring is in the air, doesn’t the pub look lovely?

Bcheng: Yeah, great to have spring so early here in the capital, we can even set up chairs outside, making our day drinking and football chatting all the better.

SU: That sounds great, about time we got a beer garden going here. So, seems the hot topic is the Chinese national team, what say you about their surprise qualification for the final round of World Cup Qualifying?

BC: It came in dramatic fashion, but I have to bring everyone down, I think a lot of the focus needs to be on why it had to be that way instead of just joy over them going through.

SU: Yeah, absolutely, we can’t ignore the “ass-backwards” nature of China’s passage to the second round.

BC: This was an incredibly easy group, the only challenge was supposed to be the two matches against Qatar, but China wasn’t overly impressive against the Maldives (it could be argued they sat back knowing they’d win to focus entirely on Qatar). However the biggest disappointment, of course, was only taking two points off Hong Kong and failing to score against their own territory over 180 minutes.

SU: Yeah I think you summed it up well there, I have no counter to offer here. In particular there is just no excuse for not scoring against Hong Kong at all. Also of course, Qatar had already qualified so weren’t exactly full strength. What I find disturbing are the numerous posts I see on my wechat from Chinese football friends who are talking about making plans to go to Russia in two year’s time.

BC: They can make plans to go, but I wouldn’t be so sure they’ll see China there. Even against a weakened Qatar, China didn’t look all that impressive for much of the match. That said, this is the first time they’ve gotten this far in qualifying since the 2002 World Cup, so it’s a great achievement and we’ll have 10 big matches against top Asian sides to look forward to and see how China measures up.

SU: Yes I was quite shocked to discover that China hasn’t made it to the final round since 2002, but thinking about it yes I can remember the various calamities which stopped them in the past. I think China have a chance to make it to Russia, but not a very big one, and certainly not enough to start booking tickets for. I think the fans’ attitude is part of the problem in some way, either they are ready to slit their wrists at China’s incompetence, or they’re in the clouds and over the moon at one result. There seems to be a lack of realism and these unrealistic expectations I think put unnecessary pressure on a team which, talent-wise, is at least a little behind Asia’s top sides.

BC: I think that’s true, but at the same time I think that tends to be the case with a lot of national teams, the universal example is the English (and it showed with highs and lows last week), but I think its true in a lot of places just because of how few games there are and how important every one of them seems. I get what you’re saying about lack of realism, but I think its hard to grasp because we see these players having success with their club teams and then serious problems with the national team. I think one of the issues we saw against Qatar (and obviously against Hong Kong as well) is China’s struggle up top. There are so few players who have the experience of playing striker at their club and so its a problem when they have to do it for the national team.Hell, Guoan didn’t even trust Yu Dabao to play that position for them when missing their two foreign options against Tianjin a few weeks back

SU: The influx of big name foreign strikers doesn’t help Chinese strikers sharpen their skills at all. But of course CSL clubs have been buying foreign offensive players for a long time so this is nothing new. It’s just that the situation is even worse now. Yu Dabao made a positive difference when he came on against Qatar, I’m not sure what Gao was thinking putting Wu Lei as a lone striker he simply isn”t suited to that role. But at least Wu Lei had good technical ability and for me he’s the best attacker China has produced for some time. It

BC: Yeah, I hate the argument that the new influx of expensive foreign strikers is making things worse. Before this they were just bringing in cheaper foreign strikers and still not giving chances to domestic ones, so it doesn’t matter how much the foreign strikers cost. Gao playing Wu up top was a massive fail. I think that brings us to the next question, in Gao we trust?

SU: That’s a very good question. I really am undecided about this. But, more than anything, the CFA needs to make a decision immediately and not fart around waiting for months before suddenly appointing a new coach.

BC: I think we’re in pretty much total agreement here. Waiting to fire Perrin a month and a half after his last match made zero sense. I’m not completely sold on Gao, he did great for China in his first run up until the Asian Cup where they struggled. He’s going to give a look to a lot of different guys, finding some gems while also making us scratch our heads at times. Tactically the first hour of the match against Qatar shows that there may be issues, but he just seems to get them to have confidence in themselves in a way no other manager in recent times has been able to do.

SU: Again totally agree here, I was impressed with the way he turned the game, I do think he makes a connection with the players which foreign managers obviously cant, at least not the same way. I really want to see a Chinese manager become successful and I want to say I think Gao should be the man, but somehow, I just can’t quite say with certainty I think Gao is the man.

BC: I think if they do go with a foreign manager, it can’t be a Camacho, Perrin, or Haan, some middling guy with minimal success. It’s got to be someone like Lippi, Hiddink, someone who stands above most others and is going to be a real authority in the change room.

SU: Right, it must be someone who with serious clout and weight, I think as much to deal with any CFA nonsense as having the stature to stand above all the players. Otherwise just give a Chinese manager the chance. Camacho and Perrin were both fairly disastrous appointments, they were fair to middling European coaches who weren”t able to grasp the nettle.
[11:15:08] BC: We’ll know who China’s opponents will be in a fortnight, but going back to what you said earlier and considering who China’s potential opponents are, qualifying for Russia is going to be a serious uphill battle. If we think it’s going to be a true mission impossible, why not save your money and see what Gao can do?

SU: That’s a pretty good argument. On the other hand, you could say, ok, China’s in the final qualifying around, all the have to do is finish second best in a group of six which will feature only 1-2 sides that are better than China but even then not THAT much, so let’s actually make it happen and splash big to get a top level world class coach.

BC: True, in looking at it, who is China really scared of? It’s those top tier sides, Japan, South Korea, and Australia. I think they are maybe slightly behind the second tier sides like Iran and Qatar, probably closer to Iraq and Uzbekistan, but I’d still give them a fighting chance against pretty much all those sides.

SU: I definitely don’t think China is far behind anyone in Asia. South Korea, Japan and Australia are clearly a cut above but as I said, there’s not a huge gulf and on their day China could grab a result against any of those sides. At any rate, we now have 10 games of top Asian football for China to be involved in, that in itself is quite a boost compared to the previous years where China have gone around two years or so without any meaningful game.

BC: Yes, for us pundits and for the fans, there will be plenty to talk about and a lot to look forward to, Russia isn’t totally out of the question, it’s going to be fun.

SU: What is interesting is that, if China finish 3rd in their group, and win the playoff against the other 3rd placed team in the other Asian group, they would play the 4th placed CONCACAF side. Theoretically China could play off against the USA for a place in the World Cup!

BC: You’re trying to egg me on there, eh? So I think that’s enough of the national team, do we want to go back half a month to talk a little about Round 2 or just go straight into this weekend of football?

SU: Haha, I think it’s very unlikely, but then so was China’s qualification for the final phase. Yes, CSL round 2 has disappeared into the mists of time, let’s look ahead to this weekend.

BC: And in looking ahead I think we need to start out with the Guangzhou derby. What in previous seasons has been an exciting fixture doesn’t seem so interesting this year, does the blue side of Guangzhou have a shot?

SU: Good question. This has been a very entertaining game in previous years and R&F have a pretty good record against their giant neighbours. However I can’t help but feel R&F are a team in decline, and Evergrande are getting over their early season teething problems. So, no, I think Evergrande will win this comfortably.

BC: They have sold off a number of key players, but they still have some talent in the lineup, but I think after Sven left town some of the spirit was taken out of this one.

SU: Yeah its the departure of Sven and a lack of replacements of similar standing which make me think R&F aren’t interested anymore. Perhaps there’s nothing in it other than the R&F boss realising its futile when you have Evergrande in the same town. Guangzhou has enough fans for two teams, but R&F don’t seem to have captured a fanbase in the same way SIPG have in Shanghai, and the Guangzhou derby reflects that. Anyway I digress. I would say it is a good early test for Evergrande as to their critics early season.

BC: The futility of R&F in Guangzhou is a big issue. Evergrande have won multiple league titles, multiple Asian titles and have the money to keep spending. I hate European comparisons, so I won’t go that route, but R&F hasn’t been in Guangzhou long enough to have the fan base that “second” teams in cities like Manchester or Madrid have. That said, this IS a derby and I am sure that will be in mind, but can’t see how R&F can put up a serious challenge.

SU: Yeah man. It really seems we are both in agreement city today. European comparisons can only go so far in China. The derby will give us a good idea of the real state of Guangzhou football. Incidentally, R&F selling Li Dianzuo to Evergrande was a hard one to understand.

BC: R&F brought in Chen Zhizhao and Xiao Zhi, both decent moves, but it wasn’t only Liu’s departure that was shocking, they also sold off Jin Yangyang, who like Liu joined the side last season as well as Jiang Ning, who was key to the side. They also let Zhang Yuan return to Beijing on a loan.

SU: Some strange moves all-round there, again adding to my feeling that R&F aren’t interested anymore or are at least deliberately scaling down. Do you think we will see them move again before long?

BC: If you believe the new regulations, they are no longer able to move. R&F’s base is in Guangzhou, though they have projects across China. I just don’t see them gaining a foothold in Guangzhou, they’d be better off pretty much anywhere else in China.

SU: Yeah this is one of the few times where I could see the benefit of a move. But if the new rules are actually adhered to, I think that will be for the better in the long run. Besides, perhaps Evergrande will suck this year, seems a poll on the net said 60% of their fans thought they wouldn’t win the league again. That all seems a bit too Manchester-United-fannery to me.

BC: Even if they don’t win the league, there is very little hope for R&F long term. You did it there by mentioning United, even when City sucked at least they had a base of fans in the city, R&F maybe has a couple thousand, tops. It’s hard…Enough of that, where do you want to go next?

SU: Very true. Well, as we revealed on WEF, the CSL this season has a public policy of having one “game of interest” in each round, but seems this is at the expense of the rest of the card that particular week.

BC: You think? I’d seriously disagree…There’s a couple other intriguing matches this weekend, I’m especially interested in Hebei against Jiangsu. The first CSL match ever in Qinhuangdao and a decent enough road test for Jiangsu, who’ve looked impressive in the first two matches in Nanjing.

SU: Yeah you are right on Hebei, I’m just surprised it’s a month after the start of the season and some teams still haven’t played at home yet.

BC: True, that said there have only been two rounds. Speaking of teams not having a home game, I don’t want to skip the Hebei-Jiangsu analysis or talk too much about Guoan, but on the subject of firsts, it will be the first CSL match (and the first top flight match since the 90s) in Yanji this weekend, that is bound to be a lot of fun.

SU: Yeah I do think that is interesting. I mean, a moment ago I didn’t mean there weren’t any other interesting games at all, but the Guangzhou derby really is the obvious one. Hebei Jiangsu is a intriguing clash of new money teams, and Yanji is of course an interesting place in general. This will be Guoan’s second game of the season?

BC: I get your point, and the derby has to come first, but for the quality of football on display, I’m guessing Hebei-Jiangsu will be much better than what we’ll see in Guangzhou. And yes, it is only Guoan’s second match of the season and I’m a little more concerned than I was when I first saw the fixture list. Yanbian aren’t great, but they are good enough to stay up this year and they will surely be excited going into this match while Guoan has some serious striker issues and Zaccheroni is still trying to work things out.

SU: Definitely think Heibei v Jiangsu will be the better footballing spectacle. What’s going on with Guoan then, is your new Turkish striker fit yet?

BC: It seems not, though Kleber is likely back and will feature this weekend, hoping Guoan will score its first goal of the season on Saturday.

SU: I noticed that Guoan let quite a few players go in the last window but not many game in, plus I’m really surprised that Li Yunqiu went to Shenhua, combined with the sale of Yu Yang to R&F the season before, and your aging backline, just wondering more details about the general state of your defence, is their talent waiting in the wings?

BC: Hmm, other than Chen who wanted to go home and left on a free and Li (who also went “home”), there were no domestic first team departures, but you’re right, nobody came in. I think it would have been best to hold onto Li, but I don’t think he wanted to sit on the bench for another season or two. As I talked about in the preview, with the likely pairing of Lei Tenglong (25) and Egor Krimets (24) in the middle, that’s a much younger look than last year. Zhao Hejing is now 30 and of course Zhou Ting is likely in his last season, but they do have a few options and of course Zhang Chengdong can cover in defense. It’s not ideal, but I think they’ll be okay

SU: That’s interesting. Well what else is on the fixture card this weekend?

BC: We talked about teams having their first home match of the year, well Chongqing is playing their third home match, this time hosting Shanghai SIPG. After the high of beating Evergrande, Lifan fell to Henan, so it will be interesting to see which side comes to play this time around.

SU: Yeah I thought the fixtures were meant to be mixed up a bit better this year, Evergrande and Shanghai International Port Group in close succession isn’t ideal for anyone. But Chongqing look like they will compete mid table this year, Shanghai International Port Group won’t have an easy time of it.

BC: Chongqing gets a big crowd and it can be a tough place to go, but again, they lost to Henan last week, so it really depends how excited they are for the match, SIPG is one of those teams that people want to play, so they should be pumped, it might be interesting.

SU: Definitely one of the games worth keeping an eye on this weekend. Well, that looks like the pick of the bunch, anything else this week?

BC: Not really….Third week of the year is too early to talk relegation, but two teams that many around WEF think will be near the bottom of the table, Tianjin and Changchun, face off, but that will be painful to watch. Game of the week is in Qinhuangdao, with the Guangzhou derby serving as a good starter tonight.

SU: Yes I think you’ve summed it up very nicely there, it’s city derby time, Guangzhou edition the highlight in the pub this week.

BC: And with that, great to be back in the pub, but time to enjoy the outdoors, cheers mate!

SU: It’s been a fine drinking session. Cheers!


What do you think? Speak your piece below in the comments section.

A leading international commentator on Chinese football frequently quoted by the world's top media. Offers piercing and resolutely honest insights into the bustling crossroads where football, society, economics and politics meet in contemporary China. Based in Shanghai since 2005, observer of the Chinese game since 2000.

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