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China Cup Preview: Development more important than results as Chile, Croatia and Iceland come to Guangxi

Tuesday sees the kick-off of the first ever China Cup when the Chinese national team hosts Iceland in Guangxi. Despite speculation to the contrary, the four team tournament, also featuring Croatia and Chile, is being used for developmental purposes as each team prepares to field significantly weakened sides. Here we take a look at what the competition actually is, what to expect from China’s opponents and many of the new face which have made Marcello Lippi’s squad.

Tuesday sees the kick-off of the first ever China Cup when the Chinese national team hosts Iceland in Guangxi. Despite speculation to the contrary, the four team tournament, also featuring Croatia and Chile, is being used for developmental purposes as each team prepares to field significantly weakened sides. Here we take a look at what the competition actually is, what to expect from China’s opponents and many of the new face which have made Marcello Lippi’s squad.

What is the China Cup?

In simple terms the China Cup is a four team international knock-out competition which will be held in Nanning, Guangxi between January 10th and 15th. China will take on Iceland in the first semi-final, with the winner facing either Croatia or Chile in the final and the loser playing in a third place play-off.

Funded by Wang Jianlin’s mega-company Wanda, the actual purpose of the tournament has been the subject of some wild speculation since its inception was publicly announced last summer. With a press release referring to a FIFA-approved four team competition featuring China and three top teams from Europe and the Americas, there were those who believed some of the world’s top teams would be sending strong squads over to Nanning, despite the tournament falling outside of an official FIFA date.

This tournament will give Marcello Lippi a chance to have a look at some new players

Of course, it was always highly unlikely that top European clubs were going to release their players for such a competition and that has proven to be the case (as will be addressed below). Instead, we are left with a tournament featuring big international names Chile, Croatia and Iceland, but virtually none of the star players that have made these nations so well known in recent years.

There was also a theory that the Chinese Football Association  may have been using this competition to surreptitiously boost their own FIFA ranking by defeating some highly ranked reserve teams. Whether or not that was the original intention, China’s announcement of an inexperienced developmental squad in December has also dispelled that notion.

Instead, what we are left with is a developmental competition along the lines of the Kirin Cup in Japan which was revamped this summer using exactly the same format. Despite the lack of star power in this competition, it will give a group of young and fringe Chinese players the opportunity to compete against reserve teams that should still be at a higher level than many of China’s recent friendly opponents such as Haiti, Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan.

In the past it has been justifiably argued that the East Asia Cup should be used as a breeding ground for developing new talent, instead of a competitive tournament featuring a full-strength Chinese squad. With local bragging rights at stake in that competition, it seems hard to imagine the CFA would risk humiliation against the likes of Japan and South Korea by playing a weakened team. With nothing at stake here, though, manager Marcello Lippi gets to look at a lot of players who wouldn’t otherwise get a chance in a semi-comeptitive environment.

With Wanda stating this tournament could expand to eight teams in the future, and the scope for a change in the international calendar when everything starts going haywire in preparation for the 2022 winter World Cup in Qatar, there is some possibility that this tournament could become a bigger deal in the future. For now, though, it’s just a friendly little competition where fringe player from all four nations have a chance to make an impression they wouldn’t otherwise get.

The Opponents

On paper, Chile, Croatia and Iceland are three of the biggest names in international football based on their exploits in 2016. Chile won the Copa America Centenario in the summer to temporarily drive Lionel Messi into retirement and secure continental crowns in back-to-back years. Croatia looked like one of the top teams in the Euro 2016 group stages before succumbing to stubborn eventual champions Portugal in the last sixteen and Iceland captured the world’s imagination with their unlikely run to the quarter-finals of that competition, which included a memorable win over England.

Unfortunately, very few of the players involved in those events will find their way to Nanning next week as the vast majority are busy with their European clubs. The Chilean Primera Division is in the middle of a long winter (Southern Hemisphere summer) break and so the South American champions have sent some top domestic based players, but the likes of Alexis Sanchez, Arturo Vidal, Claudio Bravo and Gary Medel will be absent.

There are a few familiar names, though, and German club Hoffenheim have alowed Eduardo Vargas to participate in the tournament. The 27-year-old, who is the fourth highest goalscorer in Chilean national football team history, has finished top of the scoring charts at consecutive Copa Americas, but he will be joined by just three other members of the squad which triumphed in the USA last summer.

Defenders Jean Beausejour and Jose Pedro Fuenzlida have both been regulars in the Chilean national team in recent years and reserve goalkeeper Cristopher Tosselli may also get a rare chance to start having sat on the bench this summer. It may also be worth keeping an eye on young winger Cristian Cueva who earned a move to Chelsea as an 18-year-old in 2013 after shining at the U-20 World Cup that year. The left-sided player’s career has stalled since then with a series of loan moves, but he has a rare chance to shine for the national team here.

Chile’s opponents in the semi-finals will be Croatia who have brought the weakest squad of all the visiting participants. Not a single member of the Euro 2016 team has travelled to Guangxi, meaning that Chinese fans will be denied the chance to see the likes of Luca Modric, Ivan Rakitic, Ivan Perisic and Mario Mandzukic. With the exception of Filip Ozobic, who plays his football in Azerbaijan, the entire 18-man squad is domestically based and owns just 14 international caps between them.

Iceland players celebrate winning at the end of the Euro 2016 round of 16 match between England and Iceland – most of them won’t be in China, though

China have been drawn to take on Iceland in the semi-finals of this competition, but they will be facing a significantly weaker side than the one which toppled England last summer. Star player Gylfi Sigurdsson is absent, along with other key names such as Emil Hallfregsson, Aron Gunnarsson, Alfred Finnboason and Ragnar Sigurdsson.

Only five of the squad which shone in France have made the journey east. Goalkeeper Hannes Halldorsson, who caught the eye with a titanic performance against Portugal in the Euro 2016 group stage, is one of them, while centre back Birkir Saeversson and right back Kuri Arnason were also first team regulars.

This may be a depleted Iceland side, but they will continue to play in their old-fashioned, physical 4-4-2 style which proved so successful at Euro 2016 until they were overwhelmed 5-2 by France in the quarter-finals. It will be very interesting to see how the home players cope with such a physical style and it could well prove to be too much for an inexperienced squad more used to the relaxed pace of Chinese domestic football.

The Chinese Squad

Whether or not this tournament was initially conceived as a developmental competition is debatable, but the announcement of China’s squad last monthconfirmed that it was going to be used for that purpose. It is unclear whether the decision to pick a weakened squad came from the CFA, Marcello Lippi or big clubs who didn’t want to be without their players for winter training, but that is the situation we face and it will be interesting to see which of the fringe players can capitalise on their opportunity and propel themselves into consideration for future sides.

Cai Huikang’s 18 caps make him the most experienced international player in China’s squad

The initial squad featured nobody from Guangzhou Evergrande, Jiangsu Suning, Shandong Luneng or Beijing Guo’an, which made it a little surprising that the Shanghai SIPG quartet of Wu Lei, Cai Huikang, Yan Junling and Fu Huan were called up. Wu’s 40 caps and high profile made him the undoubted star of that first list, but with SIPG preparing for a February AFC Champions League qualifier it wasn’t an enormous surprise that Wu and goalkeeper Yan Junling subsequently withdrew. This leaves defensive midfielder Cai Huikang as the most experienced player in the entire squad with 18 caps.

Shanghai Shenhua are the other big name team that had players called up, with Cao Yunding, Mao Jianqing, Li Jianbin and Bai Jiajun all getting picked for the squad. The uncapped Li has already withdrawn through injury, while it has been announced that the other three Shenhua players will only play the semi-final against Iceland before returning to their club.

That means there is a good chance we’ll see all three start in the opener, with Bai playing left-back and Mao Jianqing possibly playing as a central striker in a squad lacking obvious candidates for the role. However, it is left-winger Cao Yunding who may have the biggest expectations on his shoulders after an impressive cameo in last November’s World Cup qualifier against Qatar on what was his international debut.

With Li Jianbin out of contention, the starting centre back pairing looks obvious as Cui Min and Yang Shanping are the clear standouts in the remainder of the squad. Yang has just completed a big money move to Super League new boys Tianjin Quanjian after several consistent seasons with Liaoning Whowin and Cui Min is being rewarded for two excellent seasons with Yanbian Fude that saw them get promoted in 2015 and retain their Super League status last season despite several predictions to the contrary. Cui’s teammate Chi Wenyi also looks to be the primary candidate to start in goal, with his competition coming from Liaoning’s Shi Xiaotian and Hangzhou Greentown’s Zou Dehai.

Promising 20-year-old Wang Jinxian (18) has been called up to his first ever senior squad

The left-back role will probably be Bai Jiajun’s for the first game, while 21-year-old Gao Zhunyi looks most likely to replace him in the second game when he leaves. On the other side of the defence, the attack minded Fu Huan will probably be the first choice, while Hohhot Zhongyou’s Deng Hanwen will be his understudy.

The 22-year-old Deng is one of two players who plied their trade in China League One last season to get a call-up. The other is exciting 20-year-old left-winger Wang Jinxian of Dalian Yifang. Both Deng and Wang have recently been involved in the U-23 national team set-up and both were specifically flagged up as stars in the making in our League One Team of the Season article published before the squad was announced.

Along with Mao Jianqing, Wang could also be a candidate to start up front, as could Guangzhou Evergrande youngster Wang Jingbin. The 21-year-old has recently been on loan in Japan with Fagiano Okayama and has already scored for the U-23 national team this season. Tianjin TEDA’s Hui Jiakang could also potentially lead the line.

Elsewhere in the squad, TEDA winger Hu Rentian could feature quite a bit, as could Henan Jianye’s versataile midfielder Yin Hongbo. Both have been called up to recent squads without winning caps. In the midfield, Feng Gang and Chen Zhongliu of Hangzhou, Fan Xiaodong and Pei Shuai of Changchun Yatai and Yanbian’s Chi Zhongguo could all play across the midfield three as Lippi looks to ingrain his 4-3-3 system into the DNA of the national team.

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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