Uzbekistan vs China WC Qualifying Preview: Chinese travellers likely to come back empty-handed from Silk Road sojourn

There has been a weekend of recriminations after China lost 1-0 at home to Syria in a result that makes their World Cup qualification look as likely as a fair and balanced article from the Sun newspaper. But the show must go on as Gao Hongbo takes his men down the old Silk Road from Xi’an to Central Asia for a Tuesday night showdown with Uzbekistan in Tashkent. We bring you a full preview here with a look at the situation in Group A, what to expect from a weakened Uzbek side and the major issues (at least the ones we can fit in) facing the Chinese team.

Group A – The State of Play

After a 3-2 loss to South Korea and a dull, but well-earned 0-0 draw with Iran, China’s qualifying campaign took a sharp turn for the worse when Mahmoud Al-Mawas’s 54th minute strike handed Syria a 1-0 win in Xi’an last Thursday. The fallout from this game will be addressed below, but the cold hard facts are that China now sit fifth in the six team group with just one point from three games.

Syrian players celebrate their victory in Xi'an

Syrian players celebrate their victory in Xi’an

If China’s defeat against the Syrians was considered a shock, the rest of the group returned to some semblance of normality in the same round of fixtures where South Korea and Iran both earned wins to climb in to the top two spots in the group which earn automatic qualification for the World Cup. Jalal Hosseini headed in a first half free kick from Masoud Shojaei to give Iran a hard-fought 1-0 win in Uzbekistan.

Korea, meanwhile, had to come from behind to secure a 3-2 victory at home to Qatar. Ki Sung-Yeung gave the Koreans an early lead, but Hasan Al Haydos and Sebatian Soria inspired Qatar to an unexpected 2-1 half-time lead. But with Ki pulling the strings, Ji Dong-won and the red hot Son Heung-min scored in quick succession after the interval to hand Korea the win and leave them second in the group on seven points where they are behind Iran on goal difference. Qatar remain bottom of the table without a single point from three games, while Uzbekistan’s 100% start was brought to an end against the Iranians and they have dropped down to third.

Opponents – White Wolves approach World Cup qualifying with great uzbek-tations

If Iran, South Korea, Australia and Japan are the top powers in Asian football, Uzbekistan have long been near the top of the second tier. They have made it to the final round of World Cup qualification for every tournament they have attempted to reach since first competing in the preliminaries of France 98 but, unfortunately for the Central Asians, their 100% record in reaching the final round of qualifying has been matched by their 100% failure to make world football’s premier competition. Twice, in 2006 and 2014, the White Wolves have finished third in their group to qualify for a play-off, but they fell short on both occasions at the hands of Bahrain and Jordan, respectively.

In the previous round of qualifying, Uzbekistan lost their opening match 4-2 away to North Korea, before embarking on seven game winning streak to top a potentially tricky group ahead of the pariah state, Bahrain, Yemen and a rapidly improving Philippines. They the won their opening two matches in this round against Syria and Qatar, before being denied a tenth straight competitive win by Iran last Thursday.

Last time China played Uzbekistan Wu Xi scored on the way to a 2-1 victory

Last time China played Uzbekistan Wu Xi scored on the way to a 2-1 victory

China and Uzbekistan traded home wins the only time they have ever met in World Cup qualifying, but that was in China’s solitary successful campaign for the tournament in 2002 and so they could afford to fall to defeat in Tashkent. The sides have also played each other four times at the Asian Cup with the Uzbeks winning two and drawing one. However, China were victorious in their most recent encounter when Alain Perrin guided them to a 2-1 triumph at the 2015 Australian tournament in what was Guozu’s best performance during the Frenchman’s reign.

Current head coach Samvel Babayn took over from Mirjalol Qosimov following the qualifying defeat to North Korea and has won twelve of his fourteen games since then. One of Babayn’s biggest changes was to strip veteran playmaker and two time AFC Player of the Year Serever Djeparov of the captaincy and appoint talismanic midfielder Odil Ahmedov in his place.

The good news for China is that both Djeparov and Ahmedov are major injury doubts for this match. The 34-year-old Djeparov went off injured in the first half of the Iran match last Wednesday, while Ahmedov wasn’t fit enough for that match despite being fully kitted out on the the bench.

Djeparov’s powers may be on the wane, but Ahmedov is at his peak and will be a huge loss for the Uzbeks if he doesn’t play. The 28-year-old, who plays his football for Krasnodar in Russia, has been named Uzbek player of the year for the last two seasons in a row and his absence, particularly if supplemented by Djeparov’s, will leave the Uzbeks very light in the middle of the park.

Vitaliy Denisov will be strutting his stuff for Uzbekistan at left-back

Vitaliy Denisov will be strutting his stuff for Uzbekistan at left-back

To add to Babayn’s problems, veteran attacker Aleksander Geynrikh and Changchun Yatai centre back Anzur Ismailov will both be suspended for this encounter. Given the possible midfield absences, the unavailability of Geynrikh will be especially difficult for the Uzbeks to cope with given the super-sub performances he put in against Syria and Qatar in September. The veteran made second half appearances in both 1-0 victories where he scored the winner in the first and assisted Egor Krimets header with a pinpoint free kick in the second.

In the absence of Ismailov, it will be Krimets and Beijing Guo’an teammate Igor Sergeev who will be most familiar to Chinese fans. Krimets will now be expected to lead the defence in the absence of centre back partner Ismailov, while Sergeev will take up the lone striker role in the Uzbeks’ 4-2-3-1 formation. However, as Guo’an fans can probably testify to, Sergeev is not a prolific goalscorer and has only managed four goals from eleven starts in Uzbekistan’s qualifying matches.

Uzbekistan’s problems with scoring goals were laid bare when they played Iran in a game where they created almost nothing and, with their potential weaknesses in midfield, they will likely look to the flanks in order to create chances. In Vitaliy Denisov they have a left back who likes to get forward, while wingers Sardor Rashidov and Eldor Shomurodov can both be a handful on their day. Neither has the terrifying pace of Syria’s Al-Mawas, but they can cause trouble, and the Uzbeks’ biggest issue will be servicing them from their patched up midfield.

On the whole, though, the White Wolves are a well organized side that are tough to break down. The fact that all three of their final round group games so far have ended 1-0 is a testament to that. With a raucous capacity crowd behind them, Babayn’s men will be a tough nut for anyone to crack in Tashkent, let alone a Chinese team in disarray.

Syria Post-Mortem

The Syria game has been greeted with disconsolate horror in China and made international headlines where it has been portrayed as an upset by a plucky upstart against a burgeoning football superpower. However, it shouldn’t have come as an enormous surprise to anyone who saw the Syrians narrowly lose to Uzbekistan or draw with South Korea in September. This very correspondent said in the match preview that “if it is still scoreless at 60 minutes…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…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.”

After scoring a goal from midfield against South Korea, it was a surprise to see Yu Hai start at left wing-back against Syria

After scoring a goal from midfield against South Korea, it was a surprise to see Yu Hai start at left wing-back against Syria

While some splinters still remain from that fence-sitting and the goal came in six minutes early, that was all written under the assumption that manager Gao Hongbo would switch back from the 5-3-2 formation he had used in previous matches to a 4-2-3-1 as he hinted would be the case before the match. Even when the team news came out, most presumed the five man back line was gone with the quartet of Zhao Mingjian, Zhang Linpeng, Feng Xiaoting and Ren Hang being the only recognised defenders in the first XI.

As the game got going, though, it quickly became clear that Zhang, Feng and Ren were playing as cenre backs, with Zhao and Yu Hai playing as right and left wing-backs, respectively. Why Yu, who has spent most of his career as a left-winger and the last year or so in the midfield for club and country, started in that position is a considerable mystery, but it pales in comparison to the enigma of why Gao persisted with the 5-3-2.

Away to South Korea it made sense to go conservative given the superiority of the opponent and the fact that they were dominated by the Koreans’ reserve side when they last met just over a year earlier. It was harder to justify in a home match against Iran, but the 0-0 draw that China earned from that game against Asia’s top ranked side may have inspires Gao to persist with the set up. In a home game against the weakest side in the group, however, it surely makes sense to go for something more attacking.

Of course, a 5-3-2 can be a positive formation if the wing-backs push up, but they only managed that for the first 20 minutes or so against Syria before their failure to maintain possession made it too dangerous a pursuit. This meant that the Chinese attack once again had absolutely no width, while the midfield – made up of Hao Junmin, Zhang Xizhe and Huang Bowen – lacked the composure to find space in a crowded centre.

Promising youngster Zhang Yuning was paired with Gao Lin up front but, just as had happened in the previous two games when Wu Lei partnered Sun Ke and then Zhang, there was absolutely no co-operation or understanding between the striking duo. Sometimes, it’s possible to become too obsessed with formations, but it’s so patently obvious that this way of playing isn’t working, it’s hard to do anything but roundly criticize Gao for implementing it.

There are serious questions over Gao Hongbo's team selection

There are serious questions over Gao Hongbo’s team selection

On commentary for LETV’s broadcast of the game, former national team assistant manager Li Tie took a brief respite from making bland uninformative statements (his suggestion that it was now hopefully China’s turn to be lucky after Omar Kharbin missed a sitter with the score at 1-0 makes you wonder about the nature of his team talks as manager of Hebei CFFC) to point out that none of the players in China’s squad play in a 5-3-2 for their clubs and there-in surely lies the problem. Playing in a strike partnership is different to playing as a lone forward with wingers supporting you. Playing as a wing-back is different from playing as a full-back (or a midfielder in the case of Yu Hai). Playing as one of three centre backs is different from playing in a back four…and so on.

The CFA’s decision to give the team more time to prepare by taking an extra week’s break from CSL action is rightly criticized, but perhaps understandable if every player is going to be asked to adapt from the 4-2-3-1s or 4-3-3s they play at their clubs. Evidently, though, the time is not long enough as the entire team look like a school of fish out of water.

Team News

Obviously, the main issue will be whether Gao stubbornly persists with the 5-3-2 or ditches it in favour of the more familiar 4-2-3-1. One key thing that will influence his decision is the absence of centre back Zhang Linpeng who is suspended after picking up two yellow cards. With Feng Xiaoting and Ren Hang both struggling for fitness due to illness and injury, respectively, China has a potential defensive crisis on their hands. The only other recognised centre back in the squad is veteran Du Wei who rarely gets a game for club side Hebei CFFC these days, and so the availability of Feng and Ren could prove vital.

Zhang Linpeng will miss this rematch with Uzbekistan through injury

Zhang Linpeng will miss this rematch with Uzbekistan through injury

On the face of things, the limited availability of central defenders is more likely to cause a shift to 4-2-3-1, but Gao may opt for safety in numbers by bundling Du into a three man central defence along with two starters lacking in full fitness. Indeed, both Feng and Ren looked well below par against Syria with the former giving the ball away on several occasions in the first half and the latter getting absolutely burned by Al-Mawas for the Syrian goal. Left-back is also a worry as both Yu Hai and Jiang Zhipeng struggled there in either half last Thursday and Ren is the only other option.

The rest of the team will no doubt be dependent on the formation, but it would be nice to see Zhang Yuning getting a start as a lone centre forward with wingers either side of him and a midfielder in behind. He looked extremely promising in the first half of the Iran and Syria games where his hold up play was very good. It ultimately came to nothing as he didn’t have the support and faded in the second half of both matches, but it would be good to see him get a chance in a system he is more familiar with.

There are many options in the midfield and wing positions, but the one spot that everyone will be paying attention to is who gets the start in goal. Gu Chao, who made his full debut against Syria in the absence of the injured Zeng Cheng, has been the fall guy for last Thursday’s loss after rushing out of his area and completely missing the ball on the visitor’s goal. Of course, to blame him for the result ignores the fact that China only had one shot on target (which was most likely a mis-hit free kick) in the entire game. Still, there will be a lot of pressure to drop Gu and, with Wang Dalei not in the squad, veteran Beijing Guo’an stopper Yang Zhi and Alain Perrin’s old international protege Yan Junling will be waiting in the wings.

Prospects

Uzbekistan matches tend to be low scoring and there’s no reason to expect any change here. The hosts will be severely weakened for this game and that will at give China some hope. However, it’s hard to see the visitors having either the mental resilience or tactical nous to show up in Tashkent and get a result. A draw is not beyond the realms of possibility, especially if both Ahmedov and Djeparov miss out in the midfield, but China’s defensive frailties leave them vulnerable to a mistake or lapse in concentration. Given that Gao’s men have shown no indications they can score a goal in a game that they haven’t already lost, a 1-0 win for the Uzbeks looks like a probable result, with a wider margin possible should the 5-3-2 remain.

Author: Jamie McIlroy

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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