China revived their flagging World Cup qualifying campaign with a massive 1-0 win against South Korea on Thursday night, but the campaign continues tomorrow evening with an even tougher task away to Iran. The Koreans may be the higher profile opponent, but Iran’s phenomenal record over the last three years makes them a different prospect altogether. Below, WEF takes a look at the current situation in World Cup qualifying Group A, what to expect from Team Melli, the likely Chinese team and probable outcome.
The State of Play – Result in Iran not Necessarily a Necessity
You’d have been forgiven for thinking that China’s World Cup qualification was dead and buried as recently as last Wednesday. With five games played Marcelo Lippi’s men sat bottom of the group with just two points from their first five games and were seven points adrift of Uzbekistan in the third place playoff spot.
Even the win against Korea might not have been enough to realistically rekindle China’s qualification hopes had it not been for Omar Kharbin giving Syria a stoppage time winner in their “home” match against Uzbekistan in Malaysia. From the point of view of the neutral, the Syrians’ story is a remarkable and inspirational one, but the result was also welcomed by China as it helped them narrow the gap to second place from seven points to four.
In the evening’s other match, Qatar were all but eliminated from qualification thanks to a closely fought 1-0 home defeat to Iran. The victory means that Team Melli now have a five point cushion ahead of Uzbekistan, meaning it would take an utter catastrophe for them not to be in Russia next summer.
For China, it is the standard view that a result must be achieved in Tehran in order to have any hope of qualification, but that may not be the case. Of course, coming away from Islamic Republic with nothing would seem like a waste of the historic victory in Changsha, but the struggles of everybody else in the group besides tomorrow’s opponents means China should still be in with a shot at third, even if they come up short against the group leaders.
Nine points from the final three games against Syria, Uzbekistan and Qatar doesn’t seem unfeasible given last Thursday’s display, and it’s very possible that Uzbekistan could come away from their remaining matches with Qatar, Iran, China and South Korea with three or four points. An optimistic scenario, no doubt, but not one beyond the realms of possibility which could be enough for China to finish in third despite a defeat in Iran.
The Opponents – Best Team in Asia Justified Favourites
FIFA’s official world rankings are dubious at best, but it’s hard to argue against the idea that Iran currently justify their formal status as Asia’s number one team. The likes of Japan, South Korea and Australia all have better known individual stars, but the Iranians’ consistency since 2014 has been outstanding. Many will remember Carlos Quieroz’s side frustrating Argentina at that World Cup, before finally succumbing 1-0 to a very late Lionel Messi free kick but since rounding out that tournament with a defeat to Bosnia-Herzegovina, Team Melli has lost just once in 28 matches and has gone unbeaten in 16 competitive games.
As well as including the entirety of World Cup qualification, that run also encompasses the 2015 Asian Cup – where they won all their group stage matches before getting knocked out in a quarter-final penalty shoot-out against Iraq – and friendlies against Chile, South Korea and Japan. The solitary loss came in a 3-1 away defeat to Sweden that happened almost exactly two years ago.
A quick glance at the current group table gives a pretty clear indication of why the Iranians have such an outstanding record. Six matches played, five goals scored and zero conceded speaks of a side that keeps things tight and is extremely difficult to break down. Indeed, China’s imminent opponents have now gone 848 World Cup qualification minutes without conceding a goal. The last man to break the Iranian back line in competitive play was Turkmenistan’s Mekan Saparov back in November 2015.
Even against seemingly weaker sides, the Iranians are happy to cede possession and hit back with their ruthless counter-attack as they did against Qatar last Thursday. Despite only enjoying 40% of the possession, Iran had the better chances against the Qataris, just as they did against China when the two sides played out a 0-0 in Shenyang back in September. Against Qatar, the Iranians were able to find the net through Mehdi Taremi, and the attacker will be one to watch tomorrow evening.
It does seem as though we’re selling the talents of the Iranian players short, but they do have plenty of quality in their ranks, with many plying their trade abroad. Indeed, Taremi was one of just four domestic based players in Thursday’s starting line-up. Five of the XI play their football in Europe and the most notable is 22-year-old forward Sardar Azmoun who has scored 16 international goals in 23 games. Azmoun plays his football for Russian club Rostov where he featured in the UEFA Champions League this season and recently started against Manchester United at Old Trafford in the Europa League.
Indeed, such is the strength in depth of Iran’s attack, there was no place in the last starting line-up for striker Reza Ghoochannejhad who is currently the second highest goal scorer in the Dutch Eredivisie with club Heerenveen.
Make no mistake, these are far from world class players, but China is desperate for somebody to make it big abroad, and the relative success of the Iranians does suggest a gap in class.
Add this caliber of attacker to a seemingly impenetrable defence, and you have a very difficult team to beat. Throw in a crowd that could be as high as 100,000 at Tehran’s Azadi Stadium, and you might just consider winning an impossible task.
The Chinese Team – Lippi Could Make Changes, but They’ll be for the Best
It would be tempting to say that Lippi shouldn’t adjust the side which performed so well against South Korea, but there are a couple of things to consider. The first is the return of Huang Bowen who should be available after missing Thursday’s game with a leg injury. The midfield trio of Zheng Zhi, Hao Junmin and Zhang Xizhe performed excellently in his absence but it wouldn’t be a surprise if Lippi wanted to add another of his former Guangzhou Evergrande charges to the starting line-up.
If that does happen, it doesn’t necessarily mean either Hao or Zhang coming off, as a switch from 4-3-3 to 4-2-3-1 is also possible in order to tighten things up. That’s the move Lippi made at half-time when 1-0 up against South Korea last week and it is perfectly possible that they’ll start out that way in Tehran in order to offer more insurance against Iran’s quick-fire counter attack. That could see Zheng Zhi and Huang Bowen pair up in the holding role with Zhang Xizhe or Wang Yongpo playing in the creative role in front of them.
There were a lot eyebrows raised when Yu Dabao was picked as the starting centre-forward last Thursday, but it would be hard to imagine him not starting in the role this week. It was a relief that Wu Lei wasn’t tasked with leading the line as he has been far too often over the last year, and the Shanghai SIPG man looked far more accomplished for on the wing, which is where he plays his club football.
However, with Iran happy to sit deep, it wouldn’t be a huge shock to see Lippi leave Wu out of the starting line-up, only to bring him on as a second half substitute to stretch the Iranians with his pace later in the game. It would be unwise to bet against Wu being picked, but it would make sense from a tactical point of view for him to start the match on the bench.
There should be no changes in the back five which performed excellently in Changsha. The Guangzhou based quintet kept their concentration and were error free for an entire 90 minutes, which is a notable achievement for a Chinese backline in recent years. Goalkeeper Zeng Cheng made some fine saves, while the Wuhan born stopper’s Guangzhou Evergrande teammates Mei Fang, Feng Xiaoting and Zhang Linpeng were all at their AFC Champions League best.
The real surprise was Guangzhou R&F’s Jiang Zhipeng, who has always looked accomplished going forward for his club, but has never looked entirely comfortable defending and had consistently made basic errors on the ball while playing for China. The 28-year-old’s performance against South Korea may have been a breakthrough one, and he should be the first choice left-back moving forward if he can maintain those levels against Iran.
All in all, it’s a Chinese side coming off of one of their best performances in recent memory, and the players should be brimming with confidence coming into this match. However Lippi chooses to line the team up, there is no reason to doubt that he will give them the best possible chance to win, but the major question is whether they will ultimately have the quality to do so.
Predicted Line-up – 4-2-3-1
Zeng Cheng; Zhang Linpeng, Mei Fang, Feng Xiaoting, Jiang Zhipeng; Zheng Zhi, Huang Bowen; Wu Lei/Wang Yongpo, Zhang Xizhe, Hao Junmin; Yu Dabao
To say that China’s victory over South Korea was greeted with enthusiasm would be a monumental understatement, and there is an obvious danger of reading too much into one excellent result during what has been an otherwise disappointing campaign. The 1-0 scoreline and the extremely rare regional bragging rights this gave Chinese supporters during a time of heightened nationalist tensions would inevitably lead to some overreactions but, the truth is, that the performance the team put in was a genuine cause for optimism.
There were already signs of significant improvement when China hosted Qatar last November, but that translated itself into a massive result which is difficult to disparage. With the possible exception of the second half against Uzbekistan at the 2015 Asian Cup, this was probably the best China have played in a big game over the last decade.
That being said, facing this Iran team in Tehran is a totally different prospect to facing an underwhelming South Korea side lacking star player Son Heung-min. This is still a Chinese side that has twice drawn blanks in recent competitive matches against Qatar and Hong Kong, as well as individual matches against Uzbekistan, Syria and the Iranians themselves.
Given Iran’s incredible defensive record, it’s very difficult to picture the visitors scoring and Quieroz’s men probably have enough attacking options at their disposal to squeeze out another narrow victory – so the verdict is a 1-0 to Iran. The important thing to remember, though, is that still doesn’t mean China’s World Cup qualification is dead in the water as, based on the massive improvements under Lippi, they could well win their final three matches. Defeat in Tehran will be hard for Chinese fans to accept, but it’s not the end of the world and it may not even be the end of the World Cup 2018 dream.