Marcello Lippi’s China host Qatar in Kunming on Tuesday night needing a win to have any hope of reviving a seriously wounded World Cup qualifying campaign. There are reasons to be optimistic about the appointment of the veteran Italian, but Qatar arrive in China with ambitions of their own and will not be pushovers under new manager Jorge Fossati. In this preview, we take a closer look at the Qatari side before considering how much of a difference Lippi can make and what sort of team the World Cup winning manager might field.
Group A – The State of Play
Marcello Lippi may have worked wonders to take Italy to victory in the 2006 World Cup, but it will take something even more for him to take China to Russia in 2018. The former Guangzhou Evergrande boss has himself said “I hope we can achieve a miracle” in reference to China’s faltering qualification campaign and a quick glance at the Group A table shows that the 68-year-old is not dealing in hyperbole.
When Gao Hongbo resigned in the immediate aftermath of last month’s 2-0 defeat in Uzbekistan, he left a side languishing at the bottom of the table with just one point from four games and six points adrift of the third place needed to qualify for a playoff. On the same night that Gao left his post, Qatar defeated Syria 1-0 to claim their first points of the campaign and clamber off the foot of the table at China’s expense. However, both sides remain some distance away from table-toppers Iran who defeated South Korea 1-0 to keep themselves a point ahead of second placed Uzbekistan.
With only the top two guaranteed to make it to Russia from the six team group, China’s chances of an automatic qualification place already look gone, and they will instead be aiming for third place and a playoff against their opposite number from Group B. Should they somehow make it to third and emerge victorious from that two-legged contest, they will then have to win another match-up against the fourth best team in the CONCACAF region before they can book their tickets for summer 2018.
Opponents – Familiar foes, but a lot has changed
Qatar have become all to familiar to Chinese fans in recent years and the teams traded wins when they met in the previous round of this year’s World Cup qualifying. The Qatari’s downed China 1-0 in Doha last October, while Guozu stumbled into the final round of qualifying with a 2-0 win in Xi’an back in March. That result doesn’t tell the whole story, though, as Qatar had already sealed their spot in the final game before heading to the Middle Kingdom and so fielded a largely reserve side for the encounter. Prior to those matches, the sides last met in Doha in 2011 when Qatar defeated China 2-0 in the Asian Cup group stages.
Following an excellent first round of qualifying which saw them win seven in a row before losing their final meaningless game to China, the Qataris made a dreadful start to this stage by losing three games in a row. Their group opener saw them fall to a 2-0 defeat in Iran, before Uzbekistan beat them 1-0 in Doha five days later.
Despite both of Iran’s goals coming in stoppage time, those results were enough to cost manager Jose Daniel Carreno his job and he was replaced by Uruguayan compatriot Jorge Fossati. The 63-year-old had already managed the Qatar national team back in 2008, but has proven to be a big deal in the country’s domestic game in recent years by winning the 2011 AFC Champions League with Al-Sadd and leading Al-Rayyan to become runaway champions of last season’s Qatari Stars League.
As Carreno’s sacking makes clear, the QFA have legitimate ambitions of making the 2018 World Cup and avoid becoming the country since Italy in 1934 to host football’s premier competition without having previously participated in the finals. To help achieve this, Carreno has started to reduce the role of some of their promising, younger, native born players and has shown a renewed reliance on naturalised foreigners.
Fossati’s approach almost reaped immediate rewards when his team travelled to Seoul and held an improbable 2-1 lead at half time, only to eventually fall 3-2 to hosts South Korea. They may not have taken anything from that game, but it was a promising sign and was followed up with a 1-0 win at home to Syria five days later. A 2-1 friendly win over Russia in Doha last Thursday provides further evidence that the team is on the up.
Fossati approached the South Korea game by playing a conservative 5-4-1, but switched to a 4-1-4-1 for the Syria match and will likely continue with the latter line-up in Kunming. The Uruguayan insists his team is aiming for three points, but we can expect them to take a relatively conservative approach in the early phases before trying to open up later in the game if necessary.
The Maroon certainly have plenty of attacking tools at their disposal, and foremost among them is veteran Uruguayan-born striker Sebastian Soria who rolled back the years with an excellent display in Seoul. The 33-year-old’s 114 international appearances make him the country’s most capped player and China’s defence will have to keep a close eye him.
If Fossati doesn’t approach the game too negatively, he will also likely start with a pair of lively wingers in the shape of Hassan Al-Haidos and Akram Afif. 26-year-old Al-Haidos already has 76 caps to his name, but the real exciting prospect is the 20-year-old Afif. Blessed with lightning pace and a basket of tricks, the most highly touted prospect to come out of the country’s vaunted Aspire Academy has the potential to be a real star.
Afif shone as Qatar won the 2014 AFC U-19 Cup and also played a huge role in Qatar’s journey to the semi-finals of this January’s AFC U-23 Cup. He is currently on the books at Villarrael but is on loan at fellow La Liga side Sporting Gijon where he has already made four league appearances this season. This is three more than Zhang Chengdong managed during his entire time at Rayo Vallecano and it’s clear that Afif is the kind of young, precocious talent that China is still not producing.
In the midfield it is also worth looking out for creative players Ali Asadalla and Rodrigo Tabata. The former is a 23-year-old native born player, while the latter is a 35-year-old naturalized Brazilian of Japanese descent. We are very unlikely to see both in the starting line-up, but whichever one gets the nod will pose plenty of danger if they are given too much time on the ball.
Defensively speaking, there is good news for the hosts as first choice centre back Ahmed Yasser is suspended along with left-back Abdelkarim Hassan. In fact, the very attack minded Hassan was left out of the Syria game by Fossati, who seems to prefer more reserved full backs, but Yasser will be a big miss and the likely partnership of Boualem Khoukhi and Pedro Miguel looked very vulnerable against Russia.
A New Era?
So here we are again with another new manager and more reasons to feel like this could be a new beginning. Of course, Marcello Lippi is not just another manager and China has never had somebody with as much prestige as the former Juventus boss at the helm.
The significant thing is that Lippi knows Chinese football having spent three years in charge of Guangzhou Evergrande. Indeed, the Italian won a trio of Super League titles during that period, as well as an AFC Champions League crown, so it’s clear he didn’t just head east to take it easy and cash a paycheck.
The big question mark surrounding the new man will be how much he has kept up in touch with the Asian game during his two years in retirement. He has barely had a month to get up to speed since being coaxed back into the game by an enormous salary and we’ll have to wait and see if he can immediately pick up where he left off or will need some time to readjust.
However far removed Lippi may have been from the Chinese game over the last couple of years, it would be hard to imagine him getting it as tactically wrong as predecessor Gao Hongbo did. Gao’s 5-3-2 formation was a risk which only really paid off in a decent 0-0 home draw with Iran. Otherwise it was a disaster which cost them three points at home to Syria and was abandoned by the time the team travelled to Uzbekistan.
There’s no chance of Lippi experimenting that way, and all indications are that his side will line-up in a 4-3-3, with 4-2-3-1 also a possibility. While Qatar were willing to play in an internationally broadcast friendly against a decent European side in their warm-up for this game, China took the slightly curious route of playing a 120 minute behind-closed-doors contest against mid-table League One side Wuhan Zall in Kunming.
That game was illicitly streamed on some Chinese websites prompting frantic hand-wringing from various outraged patriots who were stunned that those involved could be so treacherous as to afford Qatar the opportunity to see them play a warm-up match. Aside from being a slightly embarrassing indictment on China’s desperation to gain any small advantage it can, the reported line-ups that came out of this game suggest that Lippi will go with a lot of Guangzhou Evergrande players in his starting line-up – a fact he has since confirmed.
Foremost among them is Zheng Zhi who is almost certain to earn his 94th cap in the middle of the park having been left out of Gao Hongbo’s last squad. Presuming it is a three man midfield, the 36-year-old will likely be flanked by two from the trio of Huang Bowen, Yu Hai and Hao Junmin.
Behind them, it looks probable that three of the back four will come from Evergrande. With Ren Hang justifiably dropped from the squad, it seems as though a recalled Mei Fang will partner Evergrande teammate Feng Xiaoting in the centre of defence which will mean Zhang Linpeng moving back out to right-back. R&F’s left back Jiang Zhipeng should round out an all-Guangzhou back four.
In goal, Zeng Cheng is still unavailable through injury, but Gu Chao has been dropped from the squad after his disaster against Syria and the returning Wang Dalei could well retrieve his place. In-form veteran Yang Zhi and Yan Junling offer him some decent competition, though.
It’s a little bit harder to tell what will happen up front where any one of Gao Lin, Wu Lei, Yu Dabao or Zhang Yuning could play through the middle, while Wu, Yu, Gao, Zhang Xizhe or Sun Ke could occupy the wide positions. As he’s based in Europe, 19-year-old Zhang was late joining up with the squad and is unfamiliar to Lippi meaning he is unlikely to start.
Most fans who saw the matches against South Korea, Iran and Syria would not want to see Wu play through the middle, so Yu Dabao could be a strong candidate to start there. Lippi knows Gao very well from his Evergrande days, so he’s a good shout to start on one of the wings, and it would be good to see Wu given a chance to shine on the other rather than faltering in his weaker position through the middle. If Wu doesn’t get the nod, Zhang Xizhe is another guy who has had few opportunities to play as a proper winger for China in the recent past and would be a good option to do so this time.
With the exception of their matches away to South Korea, these teams tend to play in low scoring games and this match should be no different. Qatar proved in the last round of qualifying that they are at least a match for the Chinese, and anybody anticipating an easy China win under the new golden era of Lippi is likely to be disappointed.
That being said, we are almost certain to see an improvement on the performances China turned out in their last two matches. The altitude of Kunming will also be an advantage – especially given that the Qatari’s arrived there just one day before the game having had their request to charter a plane denied by China’s Civil Aviation Authority.
So, will all this, along with Qatar’s weakened defence add up to a China win? Possibly, but probably not. Lippi has spoken a lot about improving the fragile mentality of the players when they pull on the China shirt and he may have some success in doing so. But the pressures will be the same once they cross that white line and it’s still hard to imagine this team quite having what it take to see out a win against a good Qatar side.
The return of Zheng Zhi will add composure, and the absence of Ren Hang will help the defence, but there is still the issue of creating chances and scoring goals which might just cost the Chinese the win they need. Still, Qatar have also come here looking for three points and they may also leave disappointed thanks to a tense 1-1 draw.