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China 0-1 Syria: Home defeat leaves clueless China a long way from Russia

China’s hopes of reaching Russia 2018 took a potentially fatal blow in Xi’an this evening as they were defeated 1-0 by a Syrian side who continue to belie their underdog status. Lightning quick winger Mahmoud Al-Mawas scored the only goal of the game early in the second half when he burned the Chinese defence to latch on to a long ball which was duly dispatched into to send his teammates into raptures.

Gu Chao, making his full debut in the Chinese goal, is an obvious target for opprobrium after he rushed out of his area to dispossess Al-Mawas, only to see the 23-year-old go whizzing by him en route to goal, but this was a rotten performance from the entire team who were set up badly from the beginning and failed to step up as individuals to compensate. The defeat leaves Guozu fifth in their six team group with just one point from three matches and facing a mountain to claim as they failed to pick up anything from what should, in theory, have been the easiest of their ten Group A matches.

FIFA World Cup Qualifying – AFC Final Round, Group A

China 0 

Syria 1 
Al-Mawas 53

And, while no Chinese player can leave Xi’an with their head held high, there will be serious questions over manager Gao Hongbo’s team selection and in game management as China persisted with their conservative 532 formation despite facing a side who were largely satisfied to sit back and try to hit on the counterattack. As well as the formation itself, Yu Hai starting at left wing-back, Gao Lin partnering Zhang Yuning up front and a failure to make any tactical adjustments at half time are all criticisms that can be leveled at the manager of a side who managed just one shot on target (and they may not actually have been a shot) and could only muster 50% possession 60 minutes into a game with a team that doesn’t really like to keep the ball.

Still, nothing should be taken away from the Syrians, who followed up a 0-0 draw with South Korea last month with another heroic, hard working performance which had an extra touch of magic from the terrifying speed of Al-Mawas. Indeed, despite only having one shot of their own on target, the Qasioun Eagles were worthy of leaving Xi’an with at least a point having limited China’s toothless attack. They also missed the chance to leave with a bigger margin of victory after Omar Kharbin missed an open goal with the score at 1-0 following another electrifying run from Al-Mawas.

Huang Bowen had a good hance to score in the first half and was subbed off at the interval

Huang Bowen had a good chance to score in the first half and was subbed off at the interval

Goalmouth action was a scarcity throughout the match and was particularly sparse in a first half which started at a frantic pace but generally lacked quality. China’s best opportunity came in the 14th minute when Zhang Yuning showed good poise and strength to beat Syrian centre back Ahmed Al Salih out on the right before laying the ball off to Huang Bowen who was in a good position about ten yards out. Despite having time to pick his spot, the Guzngzhou Evergrande midfielder snapped at his effort and fired it some way over the bar.

The hosts’ only other first half chance came around ten minutes before the interval when Zhang Xizhe’s long range free kick almost lobbed Syrian goalkeeper Ibrahim Alma who was stood some distance off his line. Fortunately for the visitors, Alma showed no traces of David Seaman as he was able to back-pedal quickly and tip Zhang’s possibly mis-hit cross over the bar to deny the former Wolfsburg player his Ronaldinho moment.

Aside from the odd speculative long shot, the Syrians’ only real chance of the first half came a couple of minutes before Zhang’s effort when Kharbin knocked the ball in to Rafat Mohtadi after a neat one-two with Al-Mawas. The 20-year-old was at a difficult angle and under pressure from Zhang Linpeng, but would still hoped to have done better than to fire a meek effort wide of the post.

With China looking bereft of ideas, it was no surprise to see a change at the interval, but the nature of the alteration and the maintenance of the 532 was a bit of a head-scratcher. Left back Jiang Zhipeng replaced midfielder Huang Bowen in a move that saw Yu Hai move into the centre of the park but seemed to offer little in the way of a plan B. Indeed, the Syrian back line continued to defend with a level of commitment that would be the envy of any side in the world, with right back Alaa Al Shbli and centre backs Omar Midani and Al Salih all throwing themselves into challenges and clearances to deny the Chinese attackers any space.

Goalkeeper Gu Chao and a cluster of Chinese defenders are left in Mamoud Al-Mawas's wake as he bursts through to score

Goalkeeper Gu Chao and a cluster of Chinese defenders are left in Mamoud Al-Mawas’s wake as he bursts through to score

And it was team captain Al Salih who spotted Al-Mawas preparing to make a run between Ren Hang and Jiang Zhipeng before playing a perfectly weighted pass into his path. Al-Mawas’s pace left Ren for dead and Gu Chao came rushing out of his area with little hope of reaching the ball before the Syrian winger. Al-Mawas did show a great first touch to knock the ball past the Jiangsu Suning stopper before playing the ball into the empty net.

The goal silenced the noisy Xi’an crowd and seemed to stun the Chinese players who almost conceded a second when an errant Gu goal kick quickly found its way back to Kharbin who laid the ball across the penalty area for Al-Mawas. This time, the goalscorer failed to show the same composure he had moments earlier and fired wide from 12-yards via a deflection off of Jiang Zhipeng.

In an effort to chase the game, Gao threw on attackers Wu Lei and Yang Xu for Zhang Yuning and Yu Hai, but there was little sign of an equaliser. China’s only real chance to level came with 20 minutes to go as Wu rolled a deft pass through to Gao Lin. Once again, though, the Syrian defence was equal to the task with Al Shbli and Al Salih both sliding in to block the Guangzhou Evergrande striker’s attempt at squaring the ball into Yang Xu.

Just a couple of minutes later, Kharbin should have buried the game after Al-Mawas chased down a cleared Chinese corner from his own half, held off Hao Junmin as he dribbled towards the opposition goal and squared the ball perfectly to the Al-Dhafra attacker. Kharbin was just eight yards out with the goal at his mercy and still managed to fire over, but he needn’t have worried as the hosts were out of ideas beyond lofting hopeless long balls in to Yang Xu which all came to nothing.

Are Yu Hai? There are serious questions over Gao Hongbo's team selection, including his decision to start in a 5-3-2 with Yu Hai at wing back

Are Yu Hai? There are serious questions over Gao Hongbo’s team selection, including his decision to start in a 5-3-2 with Yu Hai at wing back

In the evening’s other Group A games, South Korea came back from a surprising 2-1 half-time deficit at home to Qatar to win 3-2, while Iran secured an impressive 1-0 win away to Uzbekistan. That means the Koreans and Iranians occupy the top two positions with seven points each, while the Uzbeks sit third with six – two points ahead of Syria. That puts China six points adrift of the two automatic World Cup qualifying places and five points behind the play-off spot a third place finish would earn.

The whole situation is a far cry from the last time China played in Xi’an back in March. Then, they defeated Qatar 2-0 to scrape into this final round of World Cup qualifying with a sense of renewed optimism that China had a shot of making it to Russia. That optimism was partially validated last month by a valiant fight back against South Korea and a hard earned point at home to Iran. But now it is quickly evaporating and a failure to pick up at least a point from next Tuesday’s game in Uzbekistan will rightly mean that it’s gone altogether.

Link to highlights:

Link to latest qualifying tables:

China: (5-3-2) Gu Chao; Zhao Mingjian, Zhang Linpeng, Feng Xiaoting, Ren Hang, Yu Hai (64′ Yang Xu); Huang Bowen (45′ Jiang Zhipeng), Hao Junmin, Zhang Xizhe; Zhang Yuning (56′ Wu Lei), Gao Lin

Syria: (4-4-1-1) Alma; Al Shbli, Midani, Al Salih, Ajan; Al-Mawas, Haj Mohamed, Al Mobayed, Kalfa (68′ Jenyat); Kharbin (81′ Al Hussein); Mohtadi (48′ Al Douni)

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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