Gao Hongbo has resigned as manager of the Chinese national football team after a comprehensive defeat by Uzbekistan in Tashkent. China’s chances of making the 2018 World Cup in Russia are all but gone after Marat Bikmaev put the White Wolves on the scoreboard shortly after the half-time break and Otabek Shukurov sealed their victory five minutes before the end. Shukurov’s long range strike took a heavy deflection off of Zhang Chengdong on its way into the Chinese net, but a two goal victory was the least the Uzbeks deserved after a dominant second half display which saw them hit the wood work on three occasions.
Gao made seven changes from the side which fell to a chastening 1-0 home defeat to Syria last Thursday and ditched the much maligned 5-3-2 formation he played in the first three final round qualifiers for the more familiar 4-2-3-1. The alterations appeared to have done some good in a first half where they looked in the same league as their nervy hosts, but that all changed immediately after half-time when Samvel Babayn’s men came out flying in a rampant post-interval spell which left the Chinese thankful the score was still just 1-0 after 60 minutes. The Uzbek onslaught tailed off after the hour mark, but they never really looked like being punished for failing to expand the score and Shukurov’s goal added an exclamation point to what was already shaping up to be an impressive win.
FIFA World Cup Qualifying – AFC Final Round, Group A
Bikmaev 50′, Shukurov 85′
The defeat leaves the Chinese with just one point from their first four games and in need of an absolute miracle to reach one of the top three places needed to have any hope of qualification for Russia 2018. After a series of bizarre decisions and disappointing displays, Gao has obviously decided he can’t provide that miracle and so has stepped down eight games into his second tenure as China manager.
The 50-year-old was already in a difficult spot after a home defeat to a Syrian team pegged by many people to be the whipping boys of the group, and there was already some speculation that he might call it a day if his side failed to get a result in Tashkent. Gao’s numerous alterations were an effort to rectify his previous mistakes, but there was also bad news for China when the team sheets came out as the Uzbek one featured the names of midfielders Odil Ahmedov and Server Djeparov who had been injury doubts before the game. Ahmedov in particular proved pivotal to his side’s victory as he overcame a slow start to absolutely run the show in a way that China’s midfielders can only dream of.
Gao’s changes for this match saw Wu Lei playing up front in the lone forward role with Jiang Ning in behind him; Cai Huikang getting a run out at the base of midfield; 34-year-old Du Wei replacing the suspended Zhang Linpeng at centre back; veteran Yang Zhi taking Gu Chao’s place in goal; and Zhang Chengdong and Sun Ke being given rare starts on the wings. As their failure to register a single shot suggests, it was hardly a vintage first half from the Chinese, but they at least looked competitive and limited the hosts’ chances.
Indeed, for the first 15 minutes or so China looked to be marginally the better side as the Uzbeks struggled to settle, but the momentum began to change when left winger Sun Ke was carted off with a serious looking knee injury following a collision with Davronbek Khashimov. With Sun clearly unable to continue, it took the Chinese staff several minutes to arrange a replacement and, when they did, it came in the form of left back Jiang Zhipeng. Playing a few minutes with a man advantage seemed to have given Babayan’s men a little time to find their feet and the introduction of Jiang, rather than established wingers Yu Hai or Zhang Xizhe, seemed like a spontaneous choice which exposed Gao’s essentially conservative nature.
As the hosts began to grow in confidence, chances started to appear with goalscorer Bikmaev wasting a decent one in the 21st minute when he opted to lash a wild shot over the bar from a tight angle rather than cross the ball in to a waiting teammate. By now, Ahmedov was finding his groove and he gave a demonstration of how dangerous he could be ten minutes later when he used a change of pace to burst past Zhang Chengdong before squaring the ball to Igor Sergeev. At close range, the Beijing Guo’an forward was denied by the feet of club teammate Yang Zhi, but it was a warning for China that was re-emphasised a further ten minutes later when Ahmedov cut in with a surging run from the left, only to see his shot blocked by Du Wei.
Babayan’s half-time team talk must have been every bit as inspiring as Gao’s was flat, because an enormous gap in quality appeared between the two sides from the very beginning of the second half. Just two minutes after the interval, Du Wei was caught trying to intercept a ball down field which allowed Ahmedov to cut a swathe through the centre of the field before laying the ball off to Eldor Shomurodov on the right side of the penalty area. The 21-year-old’s ball across the box was just beyond the reach of Djeparov’s Gascoigne-esque lunge, but the tone of the second half had been set.
Just three minutes later, Du Wei headed a long ball straight at the feet of Sergeev and the 23-year-old quickly laid the ball off to Shomurodov. This time, the Bunyodkor winger made no mistake with his pass as he picked out Bikmaev in acres of space on the left. The veteran Lokomotive Tashkent attacker had been a bit of a surprise inclusion in the team having been given his first start in almost a year in place of Uzbekistan’s top scorer in qualifying Sardor Rashidov, but he made up for his earlier wastefulness with a well placed left foot finish across Yang Zhi. Another two minutes later, Ahmedov was again showing his class when he slipped in Sergeev whose powerful left foot drive rattled the Chinese post.
With his team rapidly losing control of the game, Gao made a change by bringing off first half substitute Jiang Zhipeng for striker Zhang Yuning. This saw Wu Lei replace Jiang on the left-wing and is a clear indication that the first half replacement of Sun was a rushed, ill thought-out decision. Almost immediately, China were having their first shot of the game as Zhang Chengdong’s long cross field ball was missed by Khashimov and found its way to Wu Lei in the penalty area. Unfortunately, the Shanghai SIPG star tried to do too much as he cut in and ended up firing a weak shot at Aleksandr Lobanov as the ball was getting away from him, rather than playing it across to Jiang Ning who was in a good position.
But that was merely an interlude in Uzbekistan’s domination as the hosts piled in the shots. Both Shomuradov and Vitaliy Denisov were given time to fire in long range efforts with the former’s going high and wide, and the latter’s crashing against the crossbar. Djeparov also fired a decent half chance off target when Ren Hang played his clearance straight into his feet and it really looked like the scoreline might get embarrassing for the visitors.
The hosts began to ease off, though, and their chances became scarcer. The only moment where the Uzbeks almost rued their wastefulness in front of goal came in the 83rd minute when Hao Junmin slipped in a tiring Wu Lei who couldn’t generate the power of accuracy to beat Lobanov from close range.
Just a couple of minutes later, Wu’s fatigue acted to the detriment of China at the other end of the field as he failed to close down substitute Shukurov as he jockeyed for space on the edge of the area after a corner. This allowed the 20-year-old to fire in to the net via the leg of Zhang Chengdong. The goal was in no way unfair on China, but it was very harsh on Zhang who may have been the visitors’ best player on the night. The former Rayo Vallecano reserve was making his first competitive appearance under Gao and gave pundits another stick to beat the incumbent with by producing a strong, physical performance down the right flank against impressive Uzbek left-back Denisov.
But the failure to include Zhang in earlier games will just be one point on a long charge sheet presented against Gao. In this game alone, his decision to include Du Wei – a 34-year-old who rarely gets a game at club level – in the squad was exposed by the veteran’s poor second half performance, and the debacle over Sun Ke’s substitution reflects Gao’s poor in game management (this was also evident in the Syria match when he opted to move a clearly exhausted Yu Hai from left wing back into the midfield at half-time). It’s also worth noting that the choice to start Wu Lei up front is one that has backfired for the third time in just over a month.
Of course, China were always going to struggle to qualify for the World Cup when the draw for a six team group including South Korea, Iran, Uzbekistan, Qatar and Syria was made. Unfortunately, Gao has managed to quickly undo any good will he earned with the 2-0 home victory over Qatar’s reserves in March that saw China scrape into this final round of qualifying.
Like every country in the world, China has deluded fans who expect them to win every game whatever the on pitch realities may be, but the vast majority just want their team to put up a fight and not embarrass them. Sadly, China’s second half display in Tashkent is yet another chapter in the annals of woeful national team displays. It’s an outcome that Gao may have survived had his team been victorious in Xi’an five days ago, but that loss to Syria meant that failure to get at least a draw here would leave him in a very difficult position. In the event, a woeful second half capitulation has left Gao looking for a new job and China looking towards 2022 for their next realistic hope of competing in a World Cup.
Uzbekistan (4-1-4-1): Lobanov; Khashimov, Krimets, Tukhtakhujaev; Khaydarov; Bikmaev (Shukurov 64′), Djeparov, Ahmedov (Masharipov 81′), Shomurodov (Rashidov 90′); Sergeev
China (4-2-3-1): Yang Zhi; Zhao Mingjian, Feng Xiaoting, Du Wei, Ren Hang, Cai Huikang, Hao Junmin; Zhang Chengdong, Jiang Ning (Huang Bowen 69′), Sun Ke (Jiang Zhipeng 18′ (Zhang Yuning 54′)); Wu Lei
Current group standings here: http://www.fifa.com/worldcup/preliminaries/asia/index.html
Game highlights here: http://sports.le.com/video/topic/s/20490_26763655.html