China’s World Cup qualifying campaign resumes tomorrow evening with a vital must win match away to Syria. Due to the ongoing civil war in the Middle Eastern country the match will be played in Malaysia, but that offers little advantage for China against a side who continue to defy all expectations. Here we take a look at the current situation in qualifying, what to expect from a tough Syrian team, the possible Chinese team and how the game may turn out.
The Story So Far – China Still in with a Shot Despite Slow Start
Whichever way you look at it, five points from seven final round World Cup qualifying matches isn’t a very good return, and that’s all that China has to its name so far. Guozu opened their final round campaign last September with a 3-2 loss in South Korea before securing an impressive 0-0 draw at home to an unbeaten Iran side which currently sits top of the table without conceding a goal. Things fell apart dramatically in October, though, when a surprising 1-0 defeat to tomorrow’s opponents in Xi’an was followed by a 2-0 defeat away to Uzbekistan. Those two results were enough to force Gao Hongbo into resigning, paving the way for Marcelo Lippi to take charge.
The Italian World Cup winning manager could only produce a disappointing 0-0 home draw with Qatar in his first match in charge last November, but China’s performance was greatly improved and carried over into March’s home clash with South Korea. A Yu Dabao goal gave China their first ever competitive win over their local rivals in a game which seemed to reinvigorate the Chinese World Cup qualifying campaign. A 1-0 loss in Iran five days later was anti-climax, but nothing to be ashamed of, and China do still have an outside shot of making the third place needed to qualify for a playoff.
With China seven points adrift of third placed Uzbekistan, that looks like a very tall order with three games left to play, but the sides’ remaining fixtures mean that catching the Central Asian side is not beyond the realms of possibility. The Uzbeks will play against Iran in Tehran this evening in a game they seem likely to lose. Should that happen China would climb within four points of third by beating Syria, with their next match being at home to Uzbekistan on August 31st. Win that, and the deficit is just one point going into the final round of fixtures where China will play away to Qatar and Uzbekistan will host South Korea.
There are some other unlikely permutations which would mean that China could technically catch second placed South Korea, or that a draw against Syria could see them snatch third, but the above is the most likely route to World Cup survival and shows that, while things look bleak, qualification is not out of the question.
Of course, should Uzbekistan spring a major surprise and defeat Iran this evening, China would have to rely on a spectacular, and highly unlikely, South Korean collapse to stand any chance of making it through.
Syria’s World Cup Dream Still Alive
Syria’s performance in this World Cup qualifying campaign has been one of the most remarkable stories in world football over recent years, and the Qasioun Eagles aren’t done yet as a third place finish in the group remains a real possibility for a side just four points adrift from Uzbekistan. Ayman Hakeem’s men breezed through the first round of qualifying with a second placed finish behind Japan, and have made light of expectations that they’d be this group’s whipping boys with a series of tough, belligerent displays that have seen them hold their own against everybody and take the scalps of both China and Uzbekistan.
A record of two wins, two draws and three defeats in seven games doesn’t tell nearly as much of a story as their stingy output of two goals scored and three conceded. 0-1, 0-0, 1-0, 0-1, 0-0, 1-0, 0-0, 0-1 makes up a run of results which read like binary code or a particularly defensive day in Serie A and demonstrates what kind of team the Syrians are. Manager Ayman Hakeem has made up for his side’s lack of individual talent by fostering a combative, disciplined side which are extremely difficult to break down.
The terrible civil war which broke out in the country in 2011 means that the national team have had their backs against the wall for some time now with all home games played on neutral territory and training extremely difficult to organise. And that is reflected in a style of play in which never give up despite appearing to be inferior to their opponents on paper.
The centre back partnership of Omar Midani and Henan Jianye’s Ahmed Al Salih forms the foundation of their obstinate defence, but they get plenty of help from hard-working teammates who offer defensive cover from every position.
The good news for China coming into this game is that the Syrians have big problems in attack with 23-year-old Omar Kharbin picking up an injury in a friendly with Oman last week that looks like ruling him out for this match. With star strikers Omar Al-Somah and former Shanghai Shenhua frontman Firas Al-Khatib (who actually did return to the squad in March, but is sitting out this round of fixtures) also out of the picture long term due to their political differences with the ruling administration, a Syrian attack, which has only managed to score twice in seven games, looks blunter than ever.
The bad news, though, is that the man who broke Chinese hearts with the winning goal in Xi’an, Mahmoud Al-Mawas, will be playing and his lightening quick pace will pose a constant menace, no matter how much pressure China is putting on the Syrians. Equally as concerning is the fact that the Syrians were able to secure a 1-1 draw away to Japan last Wednesday in friendly competition the Kirin Challenge Cup. In that game, striker Mardik Mardikian headed the visitors in front shortly after half-time, and he will likely lead the line tomorrow evening.
The Chinese Team – Zheng Zhi Out and No Sign of Goals
The big news coming out of the Chinese camp is an eye injury to captain Zheng Zhi which means he’ll miss the clash in Malaysia. Despite being 36-years-old, Zheng remains China’s most calm and level-headed midfielder, and there was even a period during the first half of the 8-1 friendly victory over the Philippines last Wednesday where Zheng’s presence in the middle of the park would have greatly calmed frayed nerves with the score at 2-1.
Indeed, it’s debatable if we can learn much at all from the pounding given to the Philippines, but we did see how tomorrow’s likely midfield partnership of Huang Bowen and Hao Junmin can let the game get away from them at times. We also saw how high profile attackers Wu Lei, Gao Lin and Zhang Yuning continue to be extremely wasteful in China shirts as they all missed good chances as second half substitutes.
In the event, that didn’t really matter as the Philippines totally gave up the fight in the second half, allowing China to grab five goals from other sources. One thing that we can be almost certain about in tomorrow’s game is that chances will be few and far between and they will need to be taken if China is to earn the three points they desperately need. With Yu Dabao absent through injury, Lippi’s options through the middle are Zhang, Gao, Wu or Xiao Zhi who made his international debut last Wednesday at the age of 32 and marked the occasion with a headed goal. Truth be told, Xiao’s overall performance was underwhelming and, with Lippi wisely realising that Wu’s best position is not through the middle, there’s a good chance that the 20-year-old Zhang leads the line. An appearance from Xiao at some point during the game shouldn’t be ruled out, though.
If Zhang does get the nod, it’s vital that he holds the ball up well so he can bring the wingers and the midfielders into play as Syria’s defenders will be on him very tightly. That wide support will likely come from Wang Yongpo on one wing, and Wu Lei or Yu Hanchao on the other. Both Wu and Yu have been in fine domestic form this season, but the former continues in his struggle to transfer that over to the national team set-up, meaning Yu, who scored on Wednesday, may start the game. The most likely candidate to join Hao and Huang in the midfield is Zhang Xizhe, though Wu Xi could get the nod if Lippi is feeling more conservative and wants a little more defensive cover. Unfortunately, Yin Hongbo is suspended for this game, after putting in the best performance of his fledgling international career against the Philippines.
Defensively, Feng Xiaoting is certain to start at centre-back and, with Mei Fang suspended, will be partnered by either Ren Hang or Zhang Linpeng. Ren was less than convincing against the Philippines and was blown away by Al-Mawas last time they played Syria, but Lippi doesn’t seem to like playing Zhang centrally, so we’ll have to wait and see if that opinion changes. If Zhang is not in the middle, he will start at right-back but, if he is then Zhao Mingjian will likely start in the role. 22-year-old Deng Hanwen put in a start turn in the position in the second half last against the Philippines when he scored two excellent goals, but his defensive qualities have still not fully developed and it would be a huge risk to play him in such an important game.
Given that Al-Mawas plays on the right-wing, left-back may be the most important position of all in China’s defence and it could be a worry whoever plays there. Jiang Zhipeng is the likely starter, and his defensive play has come on leaps and bounds over the last year, but he does like to get forward a lot which could leave China in a vulnerable spot on the counterattack. He is also prone to the odd lapse in concentration, as was the case in March when his error led to an Iranian goal and an embarrassing airing of dirty laundry by his wife on social media. Ren Hang could be another option to start there, though it seems like his future now lies in the middle of defence, and Changchun Yatai’s Fan Xiaodong wasn’t even given a run out against the Philippines making an appearance here unlikely. Should Lippi be feeling especially conservative, the versatile Wang Shenchao could be an option as, despite an unconvincing international debut at centre-back against the Philippines, he’s a bit more reliable defensively.
Possible Chinese XI – 4-2-3-1: Zeng Cheng; Zhang Linpeng, Feng Xiaoting, Ren Hang, Jiang Zhipeng; Hao Junmin, Huang Bowen; Wang Yongpo, Zhang Xizhe, Yu Hanchao; Zhang Yuning
Prediction – Goals to be in Short Supply
One look at Syria’s results in this group is enough to tell even the most casual of observers that this is going to be a low scoring game. The Qasioun Eagles don’t score many, but they don’t concede many either. With the exception of that wild 3-2 defeat to South Korea in their first game, that has also been the case for China in this round of qualifying and so expecting either side to score more than once is asking for a lot.
What happened the last time that China played Syria is that the players got more and more anxious as the game went on and they got sloppier as a result. With Lippi now in charge, a lot of that nervousness seems to be fading, although Zheng Zhi’s absence from the midfield depletes them of a calming presence.
Ultimately, China should be able to get through this game without conceding a goal, but the question is whether they can score one. The team has greatly improved under Lippi, but they’ve still managed just one goal in three competitive games, and that was scored by Yu Dabao who is absent from this match.
There is no doubt that China can win this game and keep their World Cup dream alive (as long as Uzbekistan don’t kill it in Iran the night before). Whether or not they do is a different matter and, given the stinginess of the opponents and China’s own profligacy in front of goal, a 0-0 draw which disappoints both teams seems like the most likely outcome.