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China Cup Review: Shootout win over Croatia ends tournament on a high, but there’s not much for fringe players to celebrate

The inaugural China Cup came to an end on Sunday when Chile defeated Iceland 1-0 in the final. However, the trophy will mean little to a nation that has just won consecutive Copa Americas and the main purpose of the tournament was player development. China lost their semi-final match 2-0 to Iceland, before securing third place with a penalty shoot-out win over Croatia. The bronze medal means little in the grand scheme of things and the real question is whether or not any of the squad took advantage of a rare opportunity to turn out for their country. The following is a report on China’s two matches, followed by player ratings for those who got time on the field.

China 0-2 Iceland

The tournament got off to a dispiriting start when second half goals from substitutes Karston Finnbogasson and Aron Sigardursson gave Iceland what ended up being a comfortable win against the hosts. The drizzling rain which blighted the match provided a fitting backdrop for what was, on the whole, a drab affair, although there were positive signs from China in the first half where they kept possession well and created a couple of decent chances.

In the opening 45 minutes a Cai Huikang header forced a goal line clearance and Mao Jianqing headed a close range effort wide from a deflected cross, but there wasn’t much else to show for the more than 60% possession China enjoyed.

2017 China Cup – Semi-final

China 0

Iceland 2 

Finnbogasson 63′, Sigardursson 88′ 

After an organised, if uninspiring first half display, China seemed to emerge for the second half in some sort of formless blob with all the shape in Marcello Lippi’s favoured 4-3-3 gone. It would be remiss to simply blame China’s legendary World Cup winning coach for this, but the decision to withdraw Mao Jianqing from the centre forward role and replace him with Hu Rentian seemed to be a major factor in China’s second half crumbling. Not because Mao was doing an exceptional job at striker, but because Lippi opted to move Cao Yunding from the left-wing into a central striking role he was unfamiliar with. From that point on it looked as though Cao’s lack of positional awareness dragged most of the front six (except Cai Huikang) and the full backs out of position and it sometimes appeared as though the majority of the team was just chasing the ball rather than following a fixed set of instructions.

While taking advantage of the chaos enveloping the Chinese side, Iceland also displayed superior fitness as they began to threaten more and more. The visitors went ahead when Finnbogasson pounced on the rebound of a Chi Wenyi save. In the build up to the goal, Bjorn Sverisson did an excellent job of turning Yang Shanping and forcing a fine low stop from the Yanbian Fude keeper. Unfortunately for the hosts, the ball fell straight to the unmarked Finnbogasson who rolled it into an empty net. The second goal came three minutes from time as Yang Shanping allowed Sigardursson to run straight at him before firing off a shot that Chi Wenyi should have done better with.

The result and second half performance were no doubt big disappointments, but it is worth pointing out the dearth in experience between the two sides. The island nation’s starting XI had a combined total of 260 caps, whereas China’s line-up boasted just 30 caps between them and six players who had never played for the national team before. It would be easy to bill this match as China B vs Iceland B, but it was more like China C vs Iceland A-, and so a defeat against Euro 2016 quarter-finalists under those circumstances really isn’t that bad.

China 1-1 Croatia (China win 4-3 on pens)

If China were over-matched by Iceland, they should have had a better chance against a Croatia side who were even more inexperienced than the hosts. The Croats’ entire starting line-up for this third place play-off boasted just eleven caps between them coming into the tournament.

The European side found themselves in this match courtesy of a penalty shoot-out defeat in their semi-final against Chile following an impressive 1-1 draw against what should have been a vastly superior side. As expected based on that display, Croatia largely dominated this game but failed to make it pay as an 88th minute headed equaliser from Wang Jingbin cancelled out 18-year Luca Ivanusec’s first half strike.

2017 China Cup – Semi-final

China 1

Wang Jingbin 88′

Iceland 1 

Ivanusec 35′

Once again, the Croats were on the wrong side of a defeat on penalties as Wang Jinxian struck the winning spot kick following Shi Xiaotian’s save from Josip Misic. Wang Jinbing’s late heroics and the penalty shoot-out win means the tournament ended on a high for China, but they were very fortunate to get a result as the Croats should have been out of sight by half-time.

Having struggled to hold off Iceland in the second half of the semi-final, Lippi opted to play with a five man defence for the first time as China manager, but it did little to stem the tide in the first 45 minutes. It seemed as though Ante Cacic had told his team to target China’s inexperienced right-back Deng Hanwen and that’s what they did throughout the first half, with left-winger Borna Barisic looking especially dangerous.

Deng and right centre back Cui Min had a nightmare in the first 30 minutes as chance after chance came down the Croatian left flank. Despite that, Croatia’s goal actually came from their right when Fran Tudor cut the ball back for the impressive Ivanusec to drive home an emphatic finish after 35 minutes.

Wang Jingbin celebrates his late equaliser

Lippi switched things up at half time by moving back to a 4-3-3 and China did look better as a result. With the Croats seemingly willing to sit back and absorb pressure, China were able to spend more of the game in the opposition half, but were still vulnerable on the counterattack which was demonstrated in the 58th minute when Tudor had an excellent chance to double the visitors advantage following a quick break. The 21-year-old should have done better than hook his shot wide, but it wasn’t as bad as Mario Situm’s miss ten minutes from time when the Dinamo Zagreb forward got in behind the Chinese defence, only to spectacularly screw his effort out for a throw-in.

With China yet to have a shot on target, Croatia seemed to have gotten away with their wastefulness until the 88th minute when Wang Jingbin stole equaliser. The young Guangzhou Evergrande striker hadn’t been on the pitch for 15 minutes when he beat Tony Datkovic at the near post to head in Deng Hanwen’s cross. Goalkeeper Andrej Prskalo should have done better with Wang’s effort, but the striker showed a great amount of desire to get to the ball in the first place and guide it goalwards.

There was still time for Shi Xiaotian to produce a fine stoppage time save from Franko Andrijasevic’s long range shot before the game went straight to penalties with no extra time being played. Yin Hongbo and Chi Zhongguo both scored their spot kicks to cancel out successful strikes from Josip Pivaric and Filip Ozobic. Antonio Perosovic struck the bar with Croatia’s third penalty, but the scores remained level thanks to a miss from Fan Xiaodong. Wang Jingbin slammed in an emphatic effort to nulify Josip Juranovic’s own strike, before Shi produced more heroics in the Chinese goal to keep out Misic’s shot. This allowed Dalian Yifang youngster Wang Jinxian to step up and claim the glory with the winning penalty.

Player Ratings

1 – Shi Xiaotian – 7/10 – Goalkeeper – Appearances: 1 – Minutes played: 90

Shi Xiaotian was the hero against Croatia thanks to two key saves

Liaoning Whowin’s Shi wasn’t picked for the opener but made his international debut against Croatia where he justified his inclusion with two key saves. The first came in second half stoppage time when he pushed away a long range effort to preserve China’s draw, and the second was in the penalty shoot-out when he handed his team the chance to win by keeping out aspot-kick. Despite Croatia’s dominance, he didn’t have much else to do, but looked comfortable and could be on the fringes of future squads.

2 – Bai Jiajun – 3/10 – Left Back – Appearances: 1 – Minutes played: 25

Big surprise that Bai didn’t start the game against Iceland given that Shanghai Shenhua’s players were only going to be available for the first match. Many felt the 25-year-old’s national team call-up was long overdue, but his time was limited to a second half substitute appearance against Iceland where he did little to impress as part of an entire team that was falling apart.

3 – Pei Shuai – 6/10 – Midfielder – Appearances: 1 – Minutes played: 90

The former under-23 international didn’t feature at all against Iceland but celebrated his 24th birthday with a start against Croatia. The versatile Changchun Yatai player started out as Cai Huikang’s midfield partner, before being given the responsibility of anchoring the midfield three when the formation changed at half-time. Surprisingly, Pei then spent the last 25 minutes playing at centre back where he did struggle a bit. That being said, Pei looked very competent in the midfield and the way he was moved around the team by Lippi shows that the Italian seems to have some faith in him. We may see more of Pei on the international scene in the coming years.

4 – Fan Xiaodong – 5.5/10 – Left Back – Appearances: 2 – Minutes played: 180

At 29, Fan was the oldest uncapped player in the squad and played every minute of the tournament. The Changchun Yatai man never made any spectacular mistakes, but looked cumbersome at times on the defensive side of things. He did show a great willingness to get forward, although there wasn’t much end product to show for it. Luckily, his missed penalty in the shoot-out didn’t mean anything. Given his age, we’re unlikely to see him around the full strength squad when World Cup qualification roles around.

5 – Yang Shanping – 5/10 – Centre Back – Appearances:2 – Minutes Played: 155

Yang Shanping (5) had a difficult time of things against Iceland

There have been calls for Yang to get a chance with the national team for quite some time and the 29-year-old was finally given a chance to build on the solitary cap he earned back in 2013. Unfortunately, the centre back had a rough time of things against Iceland where he could be held at least partially responsible for both goals. He looked more assured against Croatia, although he was substituted off with 25 minutes to go. Yang’s career seems to be on the up having moved to Tianjin Quanjian earlier in the winter after an adulthood spent with Liaoning Whowin, but his performance against Iceland may stall his international career.

6 – Gao Zhunyi – 6.5/10 – Centre Back – Appearances: 2 – Minutes Played: 135

At just 21, Gao is clearly still raw, but he proved himself to be extremely committed against Iceland where he made three key blocks in covering for the mistakes of others. There were plenty of times when Gao’s positioning was suspect, but he did enough to show he could potentially have a bright future in the national team set-up if he is able to kick-on and doesn’t rest on his laurels as so many many promising Chinese youngsters have done in the past.

7 – Wang Jingbin – 6/10 – Centre Forward – Appearances: 2 – Minutes Played: 26

As a 21-year-old who has never played a senior game of club football, it was a big surprise when Wang got called up. The Guangzhou Evergrande attacker wasn’t considered ready to start either game, but he was trusted to make two late substitute appearances and he rewarded Lippi’s faith with the headed equaliser against Croatia. Wang basically did nothing apart from that, but he does look like a pure centre forward which is something nobody else in this squad was. Given China’s lack of depth in the central striking role, it wouldn’t be a surprise to see Wang feature for the national team in the coming years if he can get more playing time at club level.

8 – Cai Huikang – 6/10 – Midfield – Appearances: 2 – Minutes Played: 124

With 18 caps, Cai was the senior player in this squad and was handed the captaincy as a consequence. In the opening match, the Shanghai SIPG midfielder played at the centre of the midfield three and boasted a Xavi-esque pass completion rate of 99% with 78 of 79 finding the mark. As you’d expect with Cai, though, most of those passes were simple ones and, although he was the one player who maintained his positional discipline when China fell apart against Iceland, he was unable to organise those around him and calm things down. He was not nearly as good against Croatia and failed to track back with Ivanusec when the midfielder scored the visitors’ opener. Cai doesn’t have the mobility to play anywhere but in the centre of China’s midfield three, but showed he can’t control games in that role, meaning a future on the China bench behind Zheng Zhi, Huang Bowen and Hao Junmin remains a likely reality.

9 – Mao Jianqing – 4.5/10 – Centre Forward – Appearances: 1 – Minutes Played: 45

Mao Jianqing failed to make much impact as centre forward against Iceland

Mao took another step on the road to career rehabilitation with a first international call-up in over five years, but things didn’t go especially well in his 45 minutes at centre forward. That’s not an enormous surprise as the 30-year-old has spent the vast majority of his time in recent years playing on the wing, and he failed to make much impact in the central striking role. There was one close range header wide and some nice link up play with new Shanghai Shenhua teammate Cao Yunding, but not much else as he was withdrawn at half time before returning to Shenhua with the rest of his club teammates.

10 – Hu Rentian – 4/10 – Winger – Appearances: 2 – Minutes Played: 90

There’s not a great deal to say about the Tianjin TEDA winger who came on at half time in both matches and did very little in either. At 25, Hu is still relatively young, but he did nothing here to suggest he will feature in future squads when everybody else is available.

11 – Yin Hongbo – 5/10 – Midfielder – Appearances: 2 – Minutes Played: 148

As one of the underappreciated stars of Henan Jianye’s last four seasons of promotion and Super League consolidation, Yin had a poor competition on the whole. He was just generally pretty bad against Iceland and was withdrawn before the hour mark, but did show some improvement against Croatia. He still looked a little out of his depth in the third place playoff, but did show some nice touches including the one that sprung Deng Hanwen before he crossed for the goal. Still, a disappointing tournament for a player who deserved a shot but now may not get another one.

13 – Deng Hanwen – 5.5/10 – Right Back – Appearances: 2 – Minutes Played: 155

Deng Hanwen had a difficult tournament but persevered through his problems to claim an assist

Realistically, Deng’s rating should be lower, but his number is also based on the fact that he is a 22-year-old whose only senior playing experience has come in League One and League Two with Hohhot Zhongyou. Bearing that in mind, it’s not a surprise that Deng looked exceptionally nervous as he struggled through against Iceland before being subbed off after 65 minutes. Against Croatia, it was pretty clear that the opposition was deliberately targeting him in the first 30 minutes where he floundered under a great deal of pressure. To be fair to him, though, he kept going and was rewarded when his cross assisted the equaliser in the 88th minute. Deng was exhausted by that point and was immediately stretchered off with cramp in a sign that there is plenty of willing and potential there, even if it is yet to fully manifest itself.

14 – Feng Gang – 3.5/10 – Midfield – Appearances: 1 – Minutes Played: 45

At 23, Feng has been quite highly regarded for a while so it’s a bit of a surprise he only got one half to show himself. Unfortunately, he made virtually no impression in the time he had and the Hangzhou Greentown midfielder may count his second half appearance against Croatia as the only cap of his career.

15 – Chi Zhongguo – 6.5/10 – Midfield – Appearances: 2 – Minutes Played: 180

As the only player apart from Fan Xiaodong to play every minute of both matches, Chi may just have done enough to warrant consideration for future squads. The Yanbian Fude midfielder looked comfortable on the ball, although he was sometimes ponderous and overly cautious. Didn’t have a good first half against Croatia where he played on the right of a midfield four, but looked a lot better in the second half when he became one of the midfield three. Clearly the likes of Zheng Zhi, Huang Bowen and Wu Xi remain ahead of him in the pecking order, but Chi might show up in a few more future squads and could even get some more minutes on the pitch thanks to a couple of injuries

17 – Cui Min – 3/10 – Centre Back – Appearances: 1 – Minutes Played: 90

Cui Min disappointed on his international debut

Cui was one of those guys who looked like he at least deserved a chance to stake a claim for a regular national team spot before this tournament, but boy did he blow it. Was a big surprise to see Gao Zhunyi selected ahead of him in the first game, but it became clear why in the Croatia match as Cui had a shocker. Playing on the right-hand side of the three centre backs, Cui offered virtually no help to the inexperienced right back Deng Hanwen and was regularly misplacing passes and fluffing clearances. Nerves clearly got the better of him but, at 27, not too many more international opportunities might come knocking for the big ethnic Korean.

18 – Chen Zhongliu – 1/10 – Midfielder – Appearances: 1 – Minutes Played: 31

This rating is as much about the damage this tournament has done to Chen’s reputation as it is his performance as a second half substitute against Iceland. As a 23-year-old making his full international debut, you’d expect the Hangzhou Greentown man to be full of enthusiasm and energy, but instead he rarely got beyond a jog. His strolling around the midfield was baffling, but may not have had such a big effect if the ever reasonable people who use social media hadn’t noticed and began relentlessly abusing the poor guy on his weibo account. Chen pulled out of the second game because of “fitness concerns” and it will probably be a very long time before we see him pull on the red of China again.

19 – Cao Yunding – 4/10 – Winger – Appearances: 1 – Minutes Played: 90

Disappointment for Cao who failed to build on his head turning substitute performance against Qatar back in November. Whether it was a tactical instruction or his own initiative, he spent most of the first half against Iceland dropping too deep to have any real effect on the game and then things really went pear-shaped when he was moved to striker in the second half. The logic of that move was strange to say the least and Cao looked like a fish out of water in the role as he chased around the field with no real sense of where he was supposed to be. Would be nice to see more of Cao in the national team set-up moving forward, but hopefully it will just be as a guy who plays on the wing and not much else.

20 – Wang Jinxian – 3/10 – Winger – Appearances: 2 – Minutes Played: 42

The promising Dalian Yifang winger failed to make any real impact in his two substitute appearances and still looks some way from being ready for the full international side. The good thing is that at 20-years-old he still has plenty of time to develop and the way he slammed the winning penalty home in the shoot-out suggests a young man who is not short of confidence.

21 – Hui Jiakang – 4/10 – Winger/Centre Forward – Appearances: 2 – Minutes Played: 149

The Tianjin TEDA attacker worked hard, but had little impact as either a winger or a striker. Found it particularly hard going when he started as the lone forward against Croatia and is clearly not the answer to China’s striking woes. Doubt we’ll see him in future squads.

22 – Chi Wenyi – 6/10 – Goalkeeper – Appearances: 1 – Minutes Played: 90

The Yanbian Fude goalkeeper was looking very good against Iceland until the 88th minute when he really should have done better to keep out the second goal. Before that, he had looked calm, composed and had made a couple of very good saves. Unfortunately, goalkeepers are often remembered for a few fleeting moments and Chi’s error for the second goal contrasts significantly with Shi Xiaotian’s late heroics. That being said, the ethnic Korean still looks the better goalkeeper overall and should still be ahead of Shi in the pecking order if Lippi looks beyond established regulars such as Zeng Cheng and Wang Dalei.

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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