A disappointing result has overshadowed what was otherwise a very bright beginning to the Marcello Lippi era, as China failed to make their superiority pay in Kunming. Roared on by a boisterous crowd, Lippi’s men had the best of the play from start to finish but couldn’t make it count, meaning they remain bottom of Group A as the final round of Asian World Cup qualifying reaches the halfway stage (table here).
It wasn’t for the want of trying, though, as China racked up a total of fifteen shots to Qatar’s five and twice struck the opposition woodwork in the second half with diverted efforts. Wu Xi’s powerful long range header was tipped onto the bar by Qatar goalkeeper Sadd Al-Sheeb in the 55th minute and Zheng Zhi’s 25-yeard strike deflected off a Qatari defender and onto the post with six minutes remaining. Left-back Jiang Zhipeng was also guilty of squandering an excellent opportunity in the first half and substitute Cao Yunding was unlucky not to find the net with a characteristic cut-in and shot just a few minutes after coming on in the second period.
FIFA World Cup Qualifying – AFC Final Round, Group A
Qatar offered little in return, with a cheeky Sebastian Soria backheel inside the first five minutes and a few wild long range efforts being the best they could muster. And while the visitors looked clearly out of sorts as they misplaced simple pass after simple pass, a great deal of credit has to go to Lippi for getting a team which looked limp and lifeless just a month ago to come out with a brash confidence that allowed them to dominate the ball and spend most of the match camped in the Qatari half.
As expected, the former Guangzhou Evergrande boss sent the team out in a 4-3-3 formation and it was 19-year-old Zhang Yuning who got the nod at centre forward. The youngster was flanked by Zhang Xizhe and a very lively Wu Lei, but the real story of the match was the Chinese midfield trio of Zheng Zhi, Wu Xi and Huang Bowen who bossed things from start to finish. The veteran Zheng made a mockery of Gao Hongbo’s decision to leave him out of the last squad and he was ably assisted by Huang and Wu, who had his best performance in a China shirt since last January’s Asian Cup.
Despite manager Jorge Fosatti’s pre-match assertions that Qatar had come to China looking for three points, the visitors lined up in a conservative 5-3-1-1 formation. This may have been to cover for the defensive frailties created by the suspension of top centre back Ahmed Yasser, but it left them looking very disorganized. That being said, the first big chance did fall to Fosatti’s men thanks to a well worked corner which saw Pedro Miguel head Hassan Al-Haidos’s delivery back into the box from the edge of the area where Soria had sprung the offside trap. With his back to goal, the Uruguayan-born hitman could only poke a backheel just wide of the post and it would be the last real sniff of the ball he would have in the Chinese penalty area.
From then on, the hosts controlled proceedings without quite being able to find the breakthrough. An awkward Jiang Zhipeng free kick forced Al-Sheeb to parry for a corner in the 12th minute and Zhang Yuning might have had a chance to score soon after had he held his run or Wu Lei played the ball slightly earlier in a two-on-to situation following another misplaced Qatar pass.
Zhang once again found himself in an offside position midway through the first period when he touched a well weighted Wu Lei cross onto the post. It wouldn’t have counted anyway, but it added to the growing sense that a Chinese goal was coming. There were more chances, but the best of them came just after the half hour mark when excellent play from Wu Xi and Zhang Xizhe worked the ball over to Jiang Zhipeng who fired high and wide despite having time to line-up his shot on the left hand side of the Qatar penalty area.
Jiang’s miss may have been a bad one, but it shouldn’t detract from what was an excellent first half where he gave highly regarded Qatar right-back Mohammad Musa a nightmare of a time. The Guangzhou R&F man may have faded somewhat in the second half, but his display in the opening 45 minutes was in sharp contrast to recent lackluster performances in the national team colors and will add credence to the idea that Lippi will be able to get the best out of these players.
With over half an hour gone and the visitors on the ropes, it wouldn’t have been a great surprise to see Fosatti make a tactical change but, instead, Al Sheeb went down with an “injury” in order to give the team a breather and chance to regroup. It didn’t work, though, as China kept piling on the pressure with the best of the other chances coming when Zhang Yuning headed wide off of a beautifully floated deep cross from Zheng Zhi.
A counterattack in first half stoppage time that led to a decent long range shot from Musa was a warning that China might be punished for their wastefulness, but the first half statistics showing that the hosts held 66% possession and had mustered ten shots to their opponents’ two told the story of a very impressive 45 minutes.
There was no let up for Qatar at the beginning of the second half as Jiang Zhipeng fed a dangerous cross to Zhang Yuning less than three minutes after the interval. A fine clearance from Boualem Khoukhi denied Zhang a close range shot on this occasion, but nothing could prevent Wu Xi launching a bullet header towards the goal a few minutes later. The Jiangsu Suning midfielder met Huang Bowen’s corner at full stretch on the edge of the area and his effort looked to be heading into the top corner until Al-Sheeb’s fingertip pushed it onto the crossbar.
In an effort to break the deadlock, Lippi threw Cao Yunding onto the wing in place of a visibly fatigued Wu Lei and the Shanghai Shenhua man almost scored minutes into his international debut when he cut inside Mohammed Koasala, only to drag his shot agonisingly wide of the near post. By this point, China were tiring and their intensity levels began to drop, but there was still time for Zheng Zhi to pounce on to a meek Qatar clearance and fire a 25-yard effort off Al-Sheeb’s post via the outstretched leg of a Qatari defender.
That seemed to confirm that it wasn’t going to be China’s night and, although there was time for substitute Gao Lin to get of a blocked close range effort in stoppage time, it was apparent that the three points desperately needed to keep their World Cup hopes alive would not be forthcoming.
With South Korea coming from behind to defeat Uzbekistan in Seoul this evening, even a win would have left China five points adrift of the elusive third place spot needed to have any hope of making Russia in 2018, and that probably would have been too much to make up anyway. In the event, this draw means China’s participation in the next World Cup is all but done and now the focus can be on building towards the future.
To that end, despite the result, this evening can be viewed as a big success for Lippi and his efforts to shape a team that is not going to shrink and hide when they pull on the national team’s jersey and actually has the confidence to play some decent football.
Of course, some of the old problems still remain. First and foremost among them is scoring goals. Zhang Yuning seemed to be lacking sharpness this evening and the number of times he was caught offside was unforgivable. The Vitesses Arnhem striker is only 19 and will improve, but it does tell you something about the state of China’s striking options that Lippi opted for Zhang ahead of experienced veterans Gao Lin and Yu Dabao.
Tonight also made it clear to anyone who didn’t already know that Wu Lei is far better playing on the wing then he is through the middle. It also continued to make it clear that despite his exceptional talent, his decision making is letting him down on the international stage. On the whole, there was still a lack of composure in the final third and that remains a serious issue, but almost every other aspect of the team appeared massively improved tonight.
The defence were comfortable for the entire 90 minutes and also looked confident enough to play the ball out from the back, rather than wildly hack at it in a panic. Veteran Feng Xiaoting has been as guilty as anyone of doing that in a China shirt over the last couple of years, but he looked entirely composed this evening with former club manager Lippi watching over him.
Despite some embarrassing theatrics towards the end of the game, Feng’s centre back partner Mei Fang slotted in seamlessly after a period in international exile and, as mentioned above, Jiang Zhipeng looked like a completely new man at left-back and was the best player on the pitch in the first half.
The real sense of hope, though, comes in the midfield where Zheng Zhi, Wu Xi and Huang Bowen looked like a force to be reckoned with for future opponents. The Qatari’s no doubt had an off day, and there were times when it looked like they were playing with no midfield at all, but if those three can sustain those levels in future matches, China have a solid foundation from which to build.
With Cao Yunding also making a promising cameo on his international debut, there’s a lot to look forward to as China build to the future under Lippi. It’s a just a shame that, thanks to two horrible performances in October, one thing that won’t be on that list is spending the summer of 2018 in Russia.