The next set of qualifying matches for the 2018 World Cup in Russia are just around the corner with China taking on Syria in Malaysia next Tuesday. In preparation for that do or die clash, Marcelo Lippi’s men will take on an improving Philippines side in Guangzhou on Wednesday night. The world’s most populous nation’s hopes of making it to Russia will officially come to an end with defeat to Syria next week, and so proper preparation for the match is vital.
A friendly match against a side placed 126th in the FIFA rankings is hardly a litmus test for how the Chinese will get on in Malaysia, but Thomas Dooley’s men are on a significant upswing and shouldn’t be the total pushovers they once were. Whether the match is used to test some of the fringe players which have been called up into Lippi’s latest squad, or a way of giving the strongest XI a run-out, it will be interesting to see how Guozu perform in their first match since March’s 1-0 defeat to Iran in Tehran.
Azkals Getting Better, But Have A Long Way To Go
The last time the Philippines played China they were on the wrong side of an 8-0 demolition. That match was played over 17 years ago, though, as part of qualification for the 2000 Asian Cup and we’re unlikely to get a repeat of such a one-sided battering this time around. Back in those days, the island nation weren’t just whipping boys on the continental stage, but were also among the weakest sides in Southeast Asia, too.
Towards the end of the 2000s, a partial solution to the basketball loving nation’s footballing woes was found by casting the net into Europe, North America and other parts of Asia for foreign born players eligible for the national team based of familial ties. With a large Filipino diaspora spread around the world, the search was a success and the vast majority of the squad is now foreign born and of mixed race.
Since 2010, the Azkals (street dogs) have climbed over 40 places in the FIFA World Ranking as part of a boon period that has also seen them make the semi-finals of Southeast Asia’s AFF Cup for the the first time and topping that feat by getting to the final of the now defunct AFC Challenge Cup in the developmental competition’s last ever edition in 2014.
That Challenge Cup success was also the first set of competitive games overseen by American manager Thomas Dooley who has been in charge of the side for over three years. Despite a surprising victory over Bahrain, Dooley’s men fell short in last year’s World Cup qualifying second round by finishing third in their group, but they did China a monumental favour in the final set of matches by defeating the heavily fancied North Korea 3-2 in Manila, which allowed Guozu to advance through to the final stage as one of the best runners-up.
On the pitch, the most recognisable player to followers of Chinese football will be Henan Jianye striker Javier Patino who is now in his third season in Zhengzhou, while the best known players inside the Philippines are probably English born brothers James and Phil Younghusband. The attacking siblings, aged 30 and 29, are trendsetters in the sense that they’ve been plying their trade for the Azkals since 2006, long before many of the other foreign born players came on board.
The fact that the Philippines are heading to Dushanbe, Tajikistan to play a 2019 Asian Cup qualifier after this match is a clear indication that they and China are still at different levels. With China and the the other eleven sides contesting World Cup qualification already assured of their place at UAE 2019. However, it shouldn’t be forgotten that without a big helping hand from the rapidly improving Filipinos, it would be China heading off to these backwaters and North Korea fighting it out for a place in Russia.
The Chinese Team – Dress Rehearsal or an Audition?
Although the core of Lippi’s squad remains largely unchanged, there were a few fresh faces among the 25 players called up by the national team last week. Among the seven changes to March’s list, Guangzhou Evergrande winger Yu Hanchao is the highest profile addition. It has been almost exactly a year since the 30-year-old was last called up, but he’s been rewarded for his excellent club form so far this season.
And solid club form has also seen four uncapped players called up to the squad as well. Versatile Shanghai SIPG defender Wang Shenchao and Beijing Guo’an left-back Li Lei are joined in the squad by the Guangzhou R&F duo of Xiao Zhi and Chen Zhizhao. Targetman striker Xiao and tricky winger turned cool-headed midfielder Chen have both been a key part of R&F’s surprisingly bright start to the season and have been rewarded with the prospect of winning their first international caps at the age of 32 and 29, respectively.
Along with under-23 defenders Gao Zhunyi and Deng Hanwen, who were capped during January’s developmental China Cup, Li, Xiao and Chen all seem to have been beneficiaries of the new B-team concept which was introduced with a mid-week training camp in May. The B-team is a new idea, but this quintet were all involved in it and have now moved up as result. It will be interesting to see how the B-team is used moving forward, but one has to pity the fool who doesn’t see it as a viable stepping stone to the “A-Team” in the future.
Unfortunately for Li, he has had to drop out of the squad thanks to an injury picked up in Guo’an’s 1-0 defeat to Chongqing Lifan last Friday night and it looks like he will be replaced by Changchun Yatai’s Fan Xiaodong, who is also uncapped despite being called up to the squad in March.
However, Li is not the only player missing from the squad due to injury or fitness concerns, with some pretty big names absent because they are either injured or lacking match practice following a period on the shelf. Foremost among them is forward Yu Dabao who was the hero in Changsha when he scored the winning goal in China’s historic 1-0 win over South Korea in March. The Guo’an man is out injured, and the other starter from that match who is absent is centre back Mei Fang who only returned to Guangzhou Evergrande as a substitute this weekend after three weeks out of action. The Shanghai based trio of Yu Hai, Cai Huikang (SIPG) and Cao Yunding (Shenhua) are the other players from March’s squad to miss out this time.
How Lippi chooses to play this friendly remains to be seen and there are merits in both options. One is to field the strongest team possible to give the players match practice playing together and boost confidence with what should be a comfortable win. The other is to give some of the less experienced players a chance to see if they can step up and earn a spot in the team for when it really matters against Syria next week.
However the Italian boss decides to play it, the game will be well worth a watch. Whether it’s to see how sharp the strongest XI look, what the fringe players can offer, or if the improving Philippines can hold their own, what happens in Guangzhou will be intriguing – even if it is just an appetizer for next Tuesday’s main course.
25-Man Squad for International Friendly vs Philippines, June 7th (19:35) and World Cup qualifier vs Syria, June 13th (21:45)
Goalkeepers: Zeng Cheng (Guangzhou Evergrande), Wang Dalei (Shandong Luneng), Yan Junling (Shanghai SIPG)
Defenders: Ren Hang, Gao Zhunyi, Zhao Mingjian (all Hebei CFFC), Feng Xiaoting, Zhang Linpeng (both Guangzhou Evergrande), Jiang Zhipeng (Guangzhou R&F), Deng Hanwen (Beijing Renhe), Wang Shenchao, (Shanghai SIPG) and Li Lei* (Beijing Guo’an)
Midfielders: Zheng Zhi, Huang Bowen (both Guangzhou Evergrande), Wu Xi (Jiangsu Suning), Yin Hongbo (Hebei CFFC), Chen Zhizhao (Guangzhou R&F), Zhang Xizhe (Beijing Guo’an), Wang Yongpo (Tianjin Quanjian) and Hao Junmin (Shandong Luneng)
Forwards: Gao Lin, Yu Hanchao (both Guangzhou Evergrande), Zhang Yuning (Vittesse Arnhem), Xiao Zhi (Guanghzou R&F)
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