After a one month break filled with dreary old club football, the final round of Asian World Cup qualifying resumes on Thursday when China host Syria in Xi’an before heading down the old Silk Road for a match in Uzbekistan next Tuesday. Having faced a tough start, which saw them pick up just a single point against South Korea and Iran, the Chinese campaign really needs to get going in Xi’an if they have any hope of making it to Russia in 2018. Here we tell you everything you need to know by taking a closer look at the current situation in Group A, discussing what to expect from the underdog Syrians and analysing Gao Hongbo’s team.
The Story So Far
When the draw was made for the final qualifying groups, South Korea and Iran were widely expected to claim the two automatic qualifying spots in Group A, with China, Uzbekistan and Qatar battling it out for the third place play-off spot, and Syria making up the numbers. Just to prove how tough this group was going to be for the Chinese, their opening two fixtures saw them travel to South Korea before hosting Iran in what was a real baptism of fire.
The group opener saw China hop over the Yellow Sea to Seoul where nobody expected them to get anything, and a 3-0 lead for the home team midway through the second half seemed to confirm the gaping chasm in quality between the two sides. Approaching the game with a conservative 532 formation, the Chinese were a little unfortunate to be 1-0 down at half-time thanks to a Zheng Zhi own goal, but second half strikes from Lee Chungyong and Koo Jacheol seemed to be laying the foundations for a humiliating drubbing. However, the final 20 minutes saw China demonstrate a seldom seen resilience to claw their way back to 3-2 thanks to a close range Yu Hai finish and a free kick from substitute Hao Junmin.
Indeed, had Wu Lei’s finishing been better, the hosts may even have come away from the Korean capital with the most unlikely of draws. Ultimately, the comeback didn’t earn the world’s most populous nation any points, but “the perfect loss” did see them make potentially significant improvements to their goal difference and gave cause for optimism going into the second match against Iran.
Team Melli travelled to Shenyang having picked up a difficult 2-0 home win over Qatar in their opener. The Iranians had toiled against their stubborn opponents, needing two stoppage time goals to break the deadlock, but they still arrived in northeast China as the highest placed Asian team in the FIFA rankings and were favourites to leave the Middle Kingdom with a victory.
To the disappointment of many, Gao continued with his conservative 532 and China held out to earn a respectable 0-0 draw. The hosts were pinned back in their own half for much of the first 45 minutes, but Iran’s opportunities were limited. Carlos Queiroz’s men seemed to tire in the second half and China were able to push up and create a couple of semi-decent chances with Wu Lei once again guilty of being wasteful in front of goal.
Not long after the full time whistle in Shenyang, another one blew in Kuala Lumpur to signal that massive underdogs Syria had held continental giant South Korea to a surprising scoreless stalemate in their “home” match that had to be played on neutral territory. The Koreans paid the price for letting their best player against China, Son Heung-min, make an early return to club side Tottenham Hotspur, while all the Syrians’ hard defensive work had paid off after holding Uzbekistan for over 70 minutes in their first game before eventually going down 1-0.
The Uzbeks, meanwhile, followed that home victory with another 1-0 win over Qatar in Doha. The White Wolves again needed a late goal to secure the win which put them top of the group as the only team with a 100% record two games in. Iran and South Korea sit just below them with four points a piece, while China and Syria have each claimed a solitary point from their opening two matches. Qatar prop-up the table having suffered back to back losses which have, somewhat harshly, cost manager Jose Daniel Carreno his job. (tables here)
It’s still too early to draw any conclusions, but it is clear from these September matches that the group is going to be tight. Iran’s 2-0 victory over Qatar is the only game that wasn’t settled by a one goal margin, and both of those were scored in stoppage time. Iran and South Korea remain favourites, but it’s clear this group will be no stroll in the park and that nothing can be taken for granted.
The Opponents – Qasioun Eagles need to be taken Syria-sly
Even before they earned the most unlikely of points at against South Korea in September, the Syrians could look back on this qualifying campaign with a great deal of pride. With a civil war raging in the country since 2011, manager Ayman Hakeem has worked wonders with the national team in guiding them into the final round of World Cup qualifying for the first time since 1986.
It’s unsurprising that domestic football in the country has been severely disrupted and the national team have been nomadic over the last few years thanks to the deadly conflict taking place in their homeland. Despite that, Syria has a very promising young generation coming through and that new crop helped propel the Qasioun Eagles through to the final round of qualifying as one of the second round’s best runners-up after finishing behind Japan in Group E.
There is no doubt that the Syrians had an easy route in a group also featuring Cambodia, Singapore and Afghanistan, but they made the most of it by breezing past those three sub-standard sides with a perfect record of six wins from six with 26 goals scored and just three conceded. They may have lost their two games against Japan by an aggregate score of 8-0, but their 100% record against the three weakest teams in the group was something none of the seven other second round runners-up, including China, managed.
A quick glance at the head-to-head records of these sides suggests that China has been the dominant team with six wins and one draw from their nine meetings, but four of those triumphs came in friendlies with the record in competitive fixtures being two wins a piece and one draw. These two have never met in World Cup qualification, but they faced each other in the preliminaries of the 2011 Asian Cup where Syria took four points from their two meetings – including a 0-0 draw in Hangzhou – as both sides progressed to the finals. In the Asian Cup itself, China have two victories to Syria’s one, but they haven’t faced each other on that stage since 1996.
Given the youth which bustles through this Syria side, it seems inappropriate to look at this game through the lens of the past as eight of Hakeem’s squad participated in this past January’s AFC U-23 Championships in Qatar. Indeed, the Syrians recorded their solitary victory of that tournament over China’s hapless Under-23s, with some stars of that game also looking to shine in Xi’an.
22-year-old forward Omar Kharbin scored twice in that match and he is also the main attacking threat of the senior team in the absence of prolific striker Omar Al Somah. Al Somah, who plays his football for Al-Ahli in Saudi Arabia, hasn’t represented the national team for nearly two years thanks, apparently, to his political views, but Kharbin has stepped up to fill the void.
The striker, who plies his trade in the UAE with Al-Dhafra, banged in seven goals in the second round of qualifying, though it should be noted they all came against Cambodia, Afghanistan and Singapore. Kharbin didn’t really have a sniff of goal against Uzbekistan and missed the South Korea game through injury and this could be his chance to prove he can get it done against a higher level team and is not the Yang Xu of Syria (more on that below).
Should the Syrians decide on a Plan B, it will also be worth looking out for 20-year-old Rafat Mohtadi who played the full 90 minutes against the Koreans with Kharbin out. The youngster is clearly still very raw but he is an absolute mountain of a man and Korea’s CSL centre back duo of Jang Hyun-soo and Kim Young-gwon had some real difficulty coping with him physically.
While Mohtadi may not feature, one player who almost certainly will is winger Mahmoud Al-Mawas who will offer a real threat. Mawas isn’t too much more than a head down runner who doesn’t have much in the way of end product, but he’s clearly a danger in full flight and gave China left back Mi Haolun a torrid time when they met in the Under-23 Championships in January.
Al-Mawas’s mature appearance, along with his January 1st 1993 birth date, will have many questioning whether he really should have been competing in that tournament at all, but he proved he can do damage at this level, too, when South Korean left back Oh Jaesuk had no choice but to clothesline him as he steamed forward on a counterattack and was lucky to avoid a red card. Given China’s current issues at left back (see below), restraining Al-Mawas will be a real concern for Gao Hongbo.
Indeed, Al-Mawas’s effectiveness is almost entirely limited to the counterattack and that ultimately sums up where Syria’s strength really lies. They are a well-organized and determined outfit who fight for every ball and are willing to do anything it takes to get a result. Over their first two games, they seldom had a shot from inside the opposition penalty area, but they are tough to break down.
Even if a team does find a way through their stubborn defence, they then come up against goalkeeper Ibrahim Alma who was sensational in their first two games of this round. The 24-year-old has been filling in for veteran Mosab Balhous who is out with a long term injury, but he did a fantastic job of keeping out the opposition and the only goal they have concede over their first two games came when Uzbekistan’s Alexander Geynrikh put in the rebound after Alma had made a fantastic close range save from Odil Ahmedov. As he showed against South Korea, Alma may also frustrate Chinese fans in another way with his time-wasting injury theatrics.
Elsewhere, midfielder Abdulrazak Al-Hussein is the most experienced player in the squad with 55 caps, but will largely be reduced to shielding the defence, while 23-year-old centre back Omar Midani will draw attention for his number 5 shirt and David Luiz hair cut, but has also got a decent last ditch tackle in him and is, in many ways, less erratic than his dopleganger.
The Chinese Squad
Six players who were selected for September’s 25-man squad have not been recalled for these games, with Zheng Zhi being most notable among them. The veteran has never been a favourite of Gao Hongbo and he is frozen out again having started the South Korea game at centre back and scoring an admittedly unlucky own goal.
First choice goalkeeper Zeng Cheng is also absent after picking up a serious injury in a collision with Vahid Amiri in the early phases of the Iran game. Shanghai SIPG’s Yan Junling has been brought back into the international fold to join Gu Chao and Yang Zhi which means that Wang Dalei, the hero of China’s Asian Cup run to the quarter-finals less than two years ago, remains in international isolation.
The other big injury news is Guangzhou Evergrande’s Li Xuepeng dropping out of the squad with an injury after being called up and leaving the team light at left back and centre back. It was no great surprise that Ding Haifeng and Hu Rentian have not been recalled this time around after being the two players left out of the 23-man matchday list in September, but Yu Dabao will have been disappointed to miss out this time. The Beijing Guo’an attacker couldn’t stop scoring international goals in 2015 – bagging nine in eleven games – but has failed to establish himself since Alain Perrin’s departure.
Veteran centre back Du Wei has once again been brought in to the national team set-up and will be joined by versataile full back/winger Zhang Chengdong and striker Yang Xu who have also earned recalls.
The Chinese Team
There’s a reasonable chance that the four new introductions to the squad will barely feature as it is becoming clear which players Gao favours. Having drawn a lot of criticism for his overly conservative 532 formation, the manager has clearly stated that he lined-up like that specifically to combat South Korea and Iran and will return to 4231 for these upcoming games.
Indeed, some of the criticism of Gao has been a little harsh as one point from matches with South Korea and Iran is a reasonable return and should not be sniffed at. That being said, the game plan, whatever it was, was clearly not executed flawlessly in either match and there were common concerns running through both conests which will still be relevant despite the change in formation.
The most publicly voiced concern was up front where Wu Lei started both matches partnered by Sun Ke in Seoul and then youngster Zhang Yuning in Shenyang. There is no doubt that Wu is a very good footballer, but he has done very little to indicate that he is well suited to play as a centre forward at either club or international level and that was apparent in these two fixtures. The Shanghai SIPG star lacked composure in front of goal, went down too easily under the legal challenges of centre backs and failed to show any signs that he could link up with teammates – instead preferring to run head down towards the goal.
It’s hard to remember either Sun or Zhang successfully completing a pass to Wu in either match, or Wu even attempting a pass to one of his strike partners. Indeed, Sun was a strange choice to partner Wu given that he is a winger not a striker and has been in average form for League One outfit Tianjin Quanjian in recent months, but Zhang would have made more sense had been used in the right way.
The Chinese media’s comparison of the 19-year-old Vitesse Arnhem striker to Didier Drogba may be hyperbolic, but they at least reflect his physical traits and so it would have made sense for him to play as the more advanced forward, holding up the ball and laying it off for an onrushing Wu. Zhang did show that he had the ability to play that role, but he was doing it near the centre circle and, with Wu hiding among the defenders down by the opposition penalty area, all Zhang could do was knock the ball back into the midfielders who had no further attacking outlets.
And that brings us on to the second major issue which was the failure of the full backs to get down field. That was true in both games and most evident in the first half of the Iran match where Zhao Mingjian on the right and Ren Hang on the left seldom crossed the half way line. This left China’s attack far too narrow and made it easy for the opposition to compress them. This is a problem they will also face in the 4231 unless the full backs show more attacking ambition.
Gu Chao will probably start in goal against Syria after impressing with his hands, if not his feet, against Iran and the most likely back four combo will be Feng Xiaoting and Zhang Linpeng in the middle with Zhao Mingjian on the right and Ren Hang on the left. There are apparently some concerns over Zhang’s form and fitness thanks to an injury ravaged season, so Du Wei or Ren Hang could start in the middle of defence.
Ren, meanhile, was really quite poor at left back in both of September’s qualifiers which isn’t a surprise as he hasn’t played a competitive club match since getting into a contract dispute with Jiangsu Suning in June. He has since completed a move to Hebei CFFC, but is ineligible to play this season and so there is nothing to indicate his lack of match sharpness will have improved. Ren is a favourite of Gao, though, and with Li Xuepeng out the only other option at left back is Guangzhou R&F’s Jiang Zhipeng who continues to have big question marks over the defensive side of his game.
In the midfield, Hao Junmin and Yu Hai look like good bets to play the deeper roles, having performed well in September, although Huang Bowen and Wu Xi cannot be ruled out. Hao could also take the number 10 role if Wu Lei or Zhang Xizhe don’t, while one of the the wings will probably feature Sun Ke.
Many would suggest that Wu Lei would be a good option to play on the other wing, but Gao seems committed to playing him down the middle and so Zhang Xizhe, Gao Lin or Yu Hai could provide wide options. It also wouldn’t be big a surprise to see Zhang Chengdong start on the left wing to offer more defensive protection to whichever full back starts on that side.
However, the decision which will perhaps draw the biggest reaction from Chinese football fans is who starts up front. Many an eye will role should Wu Lei’s name appear in the lone forward role, and rightly so. The justification for playing him up top in the first two games would have been that his pace can spring South Korea or Iran on the counter, but Syria will sit deep and that scenario won’t come into play this time.
If Gao insists on playing Wu through the middle, he should at least start in the deeper number 10 role with a physically stronger striker in front of him to threaten the Syrian defence in the air and lay the ball off for the line of three attackers behind to penetrate the backline. Gao Lin is always a sentimental favourite to play up front, but he’s never really gotten it done in a China shirt.
The returning Yang Xu has a much better strike rate – his 22 goals in 46 games making him China’s fourth highest scorer of all time – but 15 of those goals have come against South or Southeast Asian opposition who he can bully physically and dominate in the air. Syria do struggle a bit in the air and so Yang might have some joy against them, but they might not be quite diminutive enough for him to add to his tally.
That leaves Zhang Yuning who has more to his game than just his size and could have some joy with his hold-up play if he’s doing 15-20 metres further down the field than he was doing so against Iran. Despite the comeback against Korea, scoring goals remains China’s biggest problem and the only way they will do that here is if the fullbacks push forward and there is better link up play in attack, which will be helped by a more logical configuration of the forward line.
Make no mistake, China should win this game, but it won’t be easy and the hosts’ biggest problem could come from too many people thinking it will be. Japan may have hammered the Syrians in the last round, but they took a good Uzbekistan side to the limit and held South Korea goalless just five days later.
Neither side managed a goal against them in the first half, but whereas the Uzbeks didn’t panic, there is a big danger that the Chinese players will as an impatient, hubristic crowd gets on their back. If it is still scoreless at 60 minutes, memories of those two second round games with Hong Kong will quite probably flood the players minds and cause them to become increasingly erratic and impatient in their build-up play. Then there’s the danger of Al-Mawas bursting forward on a counterattack or Kharbin converting a half chance to give Syria a headline grabbing win and leave China’s World Cup hope dangling by a thread.
This is, of course a worse case scenario, but it’s possible if China don’t score in the first half and implode accordingly. The reverse, which sees China score an early goal and cruise to a comfortable victory, is also perfectly possible, especially as Syria have shown no evidence that they can chase a game.
The point is, this game shouldn’t be taken for granted. South Korea did that by sending Son Heung-min home rather than have him face Syria and they paid the price. The difference is that they should have it in them to recover and make it to Russia. Failure to collect three points here could damage China’s confidence irreparably and all but scupper their hopes of making it Russia.
That probably won’t happen, which is why we’ll predict a 2-0 win for China, with the fence-sitting caveat that if the game is scoreless after 60 minutes a 0-0 or 1-0 to Syria would be the more likely outcome.