The Chinese national football team earned a historic win on Thursday evening when they defeated South Korea 1-0 at the Helong Stadium in Changsha. The game’s solitary goal came in the first half when Yu Dabao headed home a cleverly planned corner to give China their first ever competitive win over South Korea. The result in itself is a significant one, but it also resuscitates China’s apparently deceased qualifying campaign as Syria’s 1-0 defeat of Uzbekistan means that Marcelo Lippi’s men are just four points adrift of the third place which will give them a playoff spot.
With China sitting bottom of their World Cup qualifying group with just two points from five games and their, this game could have passed under the radar as yet another anti-climactic night for Chinese football. However, because of the recent Chinese anger surrounding South Korea’s acceptance of the THAAD missile defence system, the game had an extra nationalist edge to it which expressed itself in the pre-match jeering of the Korean national anthem.
2018 FIFA World Cup Qualifying – Asian Zone: Round 3, Group A
Yu Dabao 34′
South Korea 0
Continuing with the 4-3-3 that he had introduced during his first match in charge against Qatar, Lippi made the surprising choice to start Yu Dabao as his central striker, but the decision paid off in the 34th minute when the Beijing Guo’an forward rushed to the near post to meet a Wang Yongpo corner with a glancing header which beat Korean goalkeeper Kwoun Sun-tae. The goal came a few minutes after Yu had squandered a good chance by firing straight at Kwoun, having been fed by a fine Wu Lei pass, and vindicated the choice to pick him.
Having gone a goal down, the Koreans began to come into the game, but were largely limited to deep crosses and speculative long range efforts. Chinese hearts were in mouths on the stroke of half-time when Kim Jin-su’s cross took a double ricochet off of Mei Fang and Feng Xiaoting before flying agonizingly wide, but the hosts went in to the half time interval without having conceded a shot on target.
Lippi replaced Wu Lei with Wu Xi at the start of the second half as he switched the side into a more defensive 4-2-3-1, while Korea’s under-fire boss Uli Stielike opted for a less subtle change of tact by introducing big centre forward Kim Shin-wook as part of a more direct approach.
Kim himself struggled to make an impact, but the Koreans were noticeably improved in the second half. The Chinese defence coped well, however, and on those occasions that the visitors were able to hit the target goalkeeper, Zeng Cheng was equal to the task. The Guangzhou Evergrande number one made a couple of fine saves from long range efforts, but his best came in the 75th minute when he was able to get down and shovel a well-aimed Ji Dong-won header wide. Six minutes later, the visitors came even closer when Jiangsu Suning centre back Hong Jeong-ho’s header had Zeng beaten, only for club teammate Wu Xi to block the effort on the line with his stomach.
There was still time for some late argy-bargy which was provoked when Hwang Hee-chan kicked the ball against a grounded Yin Hongbo and caused Feng Xiaoting to plough in and prompt a brief shoving match. It meant little in the grand scheme of things, though, as China held on to send the patriotic fans crammed into the Helong Stadium home happy.
Whatever happens in the rest of this qualifying campaign, this result and performance will be remembered for a long time by Chinese fans. There were already clear signs that Guozu were improving during Lippi’s first match in charge against Qatar last November, but this was the best Chinese national team performance since the second half of the match against Uzbekistan at the 2015 Asian Cup and there is genuine cause for optimism as a result.
Yu Dabao put in a decent turn at centre forward; Zheng Zhi, Hao Junmin, Wang Yongpo and Zhang Xizhe all performed well in the midfield; and the defence was solid and made it through the match error free. Guangzhou R&F left-back Jiang Zhipeng looks like he’s finally added defending to his undoubted attacking talents and Wu Lei actually made the right decision in the final third when he decided to play a neat pass to Yu Dabao in the first half rather than pulling his usual international trick of putting his head down and sprinting towards the goal.
Given his history in China, Lippi has unsurprisingly relied upon a core of Guangzhou Evergrande players and this has paid dividends. Through their experiences in the AFC Champions League, Zheng Zhi, Zeng Cheng, Mei Fang, Feng Xiaoting and Zhang Linpeng have become big game players and were able to transfer this over to a high profile national mathc.
Normally after a China game you can find plenty to criticize, but this time you would be scratching around for problems. Second half substitute Yin Hongbo looked nervous and a little out of his depth on what was his competitive international debut, but that had little influence on the game’s outcome and is a minor point.
Of course, this is far from a vintage Korea team. This is the third consecutive away qualifier in which they have failed to score and they were without talismanic Tottenham Hotspur winger Son Heung-min. However, it would be harsh to take anything away from China on a night that really belongs to them.
The result also took on an extra significance about half an our after the full time whistle when Omar Kharbin scored a stoppage time winner for Syria against Uzbekistan. The result of the match – played in Malaysia because of Syria’s on-going civil war – really put the cat among the Group A pigeons. It means that just two points separate second-placed South Korea and fourth-placed Syria with Uzbekistan sandwiched in the middle. More importantly from the Chinese perspective, Marcelo Lippi’s men now sit just four points behind the second placed Uzbeks with a home match against the Central Asians still to come.
Make no mistake, China are still justified outsiders to make the top three, but it at least now looks like it could potentially happen, rather than the impossibility it appeared to be before.
Next up is a trip to Tehran for a match with group leaders Iran on Tuesday night. The Persian side look almost certain to qualify having extended their lead at the top of the table with a 1-0 win over Qatar. Carlos Queiroz’s are yet to concede a goal in six final round qualifying matches and have won three from three at home, so earning a result looks like a very difficult task.
For now, though, China can celebrate a rare footballing success against South Korea and an excellent performance to go with it.