On the eve of China’s World Cup qualifying crunch clash with Uzbekistan, we preview the big match from Wuhan. China have to win to stand any chance of making it to Russia and even then their chances are…not good. Below, we take a look at what China needs to do to keep themselves in the World Cup qualifying hunt, take a closer look at the Uzbeks, analyse the Chinese team and predict the possible outcome.
Dangling by a thread; teetering on the brink; clinging on by a fingernail. The old cliches about China’s chances of making it to the 2018 World Cup don’t seem to do the current situation justice. Qualification was dangling by a thread when manager Alain Perrin got the boot following a 0-0 draw in Hong Kong in the first stage of qualifying, only to be rescued by a win over Qatar and some surprise results elsewhere that allowed China to slip through to this phase as one of the best runners-up. The world’s most populous nation was teetering on the brink of elimination last October when it lost consecutive games to Syria and Uzbekistan – a pair of defeats which cost Perrin’s successor Gao Hongbo his job. And the Chinese were left clinging on by a fingernail when they played out a frustrating 0-0 draw with Qatar the following month in what was Marcello Lippi’s first game in charge.
Things appeared to be less precarious when Lippi guided the team to a historic 1-0 win over South Korea in March, but that was followed by defeat in Iran and an agonising draw with Syria which saw Ahmed Al Saleh deny China three points with a stoppage time free kick. The Henan Jianye centre back’s late strike may have made himself an instant hero in his own country, but it left Lippi’s men clinging on by a fingernail to a thread which is being dangled by somebody who is teetering on the brink…you get the picture.
Heading into tomorrow’s game, China sit bottom of their six team qualifying group – six points behind third-placed opponents Uzbekistan with two games remaining. China’s chances of securing the automatic World Cup place given to the top two sides in the group are long gone, but there remains the mathematical possibility of catching the Uzbeks and securing the play-off spot which that would bring.
To do so, China must defeat Uzbekistan in Wuhan tomorrow and then win again away to Qatar five days later. On top of that, the Uzbeks also have to lose their final game against South Korea, while fourth placed Syria fail to take more than three points from their remaining two matches against Qatar and Iran. And, if that wasn’t enough, China also have to overturn a disadvantage of four in their goal difference meaning that they probably have to win at least one of their remaining games by two goals or more.
So, it’s as easy as that.
In fact, for any of those results to occur individually is not beyond the realms of possibility. Can China realistically win at home to Uzbekistan? – Yes. Can China realistically win away to Qatar? – Probably. Can South Korea defeat Uzbekistan? – Yes. Is it realistic that Syria could pick up less than three points from games against Qatar and Iran – Absolutely. Can the four goal deficit be overturned with two Chinese wins and two Uzbek defeats? – Yes.
Will all of these things happen over the course of the next week? – Almost certainly not.
This doesn’t even take into account the fact that, should they defeat Iran in Seoul tomorrow, South Korea will already be safely qualified by the time they play Uzbekistan and, having already secured their qualification in June, Iran might not be too motivated to knock out their political allies Syria should the war-torn nation still be in contention by then.
So it is with the most hopeless of hopes that China host Uzbekistan in Wuhan tomorrow night, but that doesn’t mean the game will not be a huge spectacle, regardless of the outcome. A large, expectant crowd will be in attendance for China’s final home game of this group campaign and, whatever happens, it should be a night of high drama.
Uzbekis Stand in the Way
This will be the third time in less than three years that China have done battle with the White Wolves in a huge match. It seems like a lifetime ago, but China produced one of their best performances in recent years when they defeated the White Wolves in the group stages of the 2015 Asian Cup. That win was enough to see China advance to the quarter-finals in Australia, but it was an entirely different story last time the sides met.
Fresh from their embarrassing defeat to Syria last October, China headed to Tashket where they held their own in the first half, before being comprehensively outplayed in the second period and falling to a 2-0 defeat. In what has been a qualifying campaign full of disappointments, that second half in Central Asia was probably the most comfortably that China have been dealt with and a big reason for that was Shanghai SIPG midfielder Odil Ahmedov.
The 29-year-old was still with Russian club Krasnodar when he ran the show in Tashkent, but has continued to demonstrate his talents to a Chinese audience since moving to SIPG last winter. While big name Brazilians Hulk and Oscar usually grab most of the headlines at the Shanghai Stadium, Ahmedov has overcome a slow start to prove an important cog in the SIPG machine. Even before Oscar was given his infamous eight match ban, Ahmedov had allayed fears that his game time would be significantly curtailed by the CFA’s hasty reduction of the foreign player quota by regularly keeping prolific striker Elkeson out of the SIPG team. Indeed, there is an argument to say that Ahmedov may be the best Asian central midfielder currently playing his football on the continent and his opponents will be well aware of his talents.
Uzbekistan also has two centre backs familiar to the Chinese audience in the shape of Changchun Yatai’s Anzur Ismailov and Beijing Guo’an’s Egor Krimets. A hardman defender with the very occasional big error in him, Ismailov is now in his seventh season with Changchun and remains almost entirely unaffected by the new foreign player quota which has seen many Asian players drop out of CSL matchday squads. The same can’t be said for Krimets who has mustered just two league appearances all season and has had to settle for reserve games in order to get playing time. Should Krimets start, he’ll likely be showing severe ring rust and so it could prove the case that Guo’an’s selection policy does China a big favour. Elsewhere, veteran playmaker Server Djeparov is the Uzbek’s best known player, though his skills are diminishing as he approaches his 35th birthday.
On the whole, Uzbekistan are a better team than China which is why they are above them in the group and the FIFA World rankings. But Samval Babayan’s men have long suffered from the curse of inconsistency which is why they have always failed to qualify for a World Cup and truly be considered one of the top powers in Asian football. That issue remains in place during this qualifying campaign where they have gone with a straight split of winning four and losing four.
Significantly for China, the Uzbeks have lost their last three qualifiers on the road. Defeats in South Korea and Iran may be expected, but the most recent loss came away to Syria and is a demonstration that Uzbekistan are very beatable. Indeed, China overcame this opponent just two years ago on neutral territory, so a win at home is certainly achievable.
The Chinese Team
The Chinese team has some big issues heading into this game, particularly in midfield where they are missing two key players. Huang Bowen and Wu Xi have each been knocked out of action through injury while playing for their clubs and you could have expected at least one of them to start had they been fit. Those injuries allowed for two surprise call-ups in the shape of Changchun Yatai under-23 player He Chao and Zhao Xuri, whose league form with Tianjin Quanjian has earned an international recall for the first time in almost three years.
Neither player looks likely to start, though, with veteran Zheng Zhi and Hao Junmin firmly in Lippi’s good graces and the midfield trio in the probable 4-3-3 being rounded out by either Zhang Xizhe or Yin Hongbo. Beijing Guo’an’s Zhang has long been regarded as one of the best talents in Chinese football, but Yin seems to be real favourite of Lippi’s since being called up for January’s China Cup. The Hebei CFFC midfielder could win his sixth cap with a start tomorrow evening, but you’d expect a minimum of a substitute appearance from Zhang- be it in the midfield or on the wing.
In attack, the big news has been that young starlet Zhang Yuning has not been considered for selection for this game for “improper communication” regarding his club commitments. The 20-year-old made headlines in the summer when he transferred from Vittesse Arnhem to West Brom before being loaned to German side Werder Bremen, but that move may have effected his international career. Zhang has been dropped after failing to return early to China so that he could remain in Germany for last weekend’s round of Bundesliga fixtures.
Despite not including Zhang in their matchday squad, Bremen were under no obligation to release Zhang as the national team’s preparations for the Uzbekistan match began one week earlier than the official FIFA international break which takes place this weekend. Zhang may have been at fault for failing to keep the CFA properly informed of his plans but, from the outside looking in, it seems as though he is suffering from being China’s only European based player – which may prove to be damaging long term to the prospects of more top Chinese players moving abroad.
In the short term, though, Zhang’s absence means Lippi has a shortage of options at centre-forward. The Italian seems to have learnt from the mistakes of previous managers by trying to play Shanghai SIPG star Wu Lei as a centre-forward so, with Yu Dabao and Yang Xu still injured, that leaves a straight choice between Gao Lin and Xiao Zhi. Aged 32 and with no previous international experience, Xiao’s call-up for the last round of international fixtures was much maligned in some quarters, but he repaid Lippi’s faith with a goal in the 8-1 friendly win over the Philippines and a headed assist for looked like Wu Xi’s winning goal in the qualifier against Syria. However, despite his dreadful scoring record in a China shirt, expect the more experienced Gao to start the game with Xiao offering a different option off the bench should Lippi wish to go more direct in the second half. It looks all but certain that Wu Lei and Yu Hanchao will flank the centre forward, though Zhang Xizhe, Wang Yongpo and Yin Hongbo could all provide cover in that role.
Defensively, there are also issues and the biggest one is the fitness of Feng Xiaoting. The Guangzhou Evergrande veteran has reasserted himself as the heart of China’s defence over the last couple of seasons and will be severely missed if he can’t play. With club teammate Mei Fang out with a long term injury, it looks likely that we’ll see the partnership of Ren Hang and Zhang Linpeng in the middle of the defence which could be a worry. Zhang is widely regarded as one of the best players China has produced in the last ten years, but he’s primarily a right-back and has never truly convinced in the middle of defence. Ren, meanwhile, has flattered to deceive since first being switched from left-back to centre-back by Alain Perrin three years ago and sitting out the second half of last season so he could force a big money move from Jiangsu Suning to Hebei CFFC doesn’t seem to have done him any favours. Ren’s under-23 club teammate Gao Zhunyi provides cover from the bench, but is very unlikely to seen any game time.
One youngster that probably will, though, is Deng Hanwen who can continue his meteoric rise with another start here. Just four seasons ago, Deng was playing in the third tier of Chinese football with Taiyuan Zhongyou and has managed to catch the eye of Lippi despite still plying his trade a level below the CSL with Beijing Renhe. Despite Li Lei earning a call-up through his impressive club form at Beijing Guo’an he looks unlikely to win his first cap at left-back, and the position will either be filled by Li Xuepeng or Jiang Zhipeng. With Li being the more defensive-minded of the two, he may get the start this time out.
In goal, Zeng Cheng has been a firm favourite of Lippi’s since his days as Guangzhou Evergrande manager and that is unlikely to change tomorrow. Despite the Wuhan native’s shaky performance against Syria, he is almost certain to make a hometown start on Thursday.
Although their prospects of qualifying are minuscule, China’s chances in this game aren’t. Uzbekistan are a better side than their hosts, but they are inconsistent and have struggled on the road in recent matches. China winning is a real possibility, although the two goal victory needed to boost their goal difference seems beyond them given the toothlessness of their attack.
That being said, while China can win, it doesn’t mean they will. If Feng Xiaoting is absent, a central defensive partnership of Zhang Linpeng and Ren Hang looks good to ship at least one goal and there’s a danger of Ahmedov doing some damage to a midfield weakened by the absence of Wu Xi and Huang Bowen.
Although they’re likely to be nervous, China will be roared on by a huge crowd and it’s hard to see them not creating chances. The problem comes in taking those chances, and it’s difficult to imagine the hosts being ruthless enough in front of goal to make any advantage count.
With all that in mind a 1-1 draw seems like a good bet. Of course, that would mean that China’s seemingly inevitable elimination happens a few days earlier than many would hope. Given how it’s the hope that apparently kills you, maybe things will be better this way.
Predicted line-up: 4-3-3 – Zeng Cheng; Deng Hanwen, Zhang Linpeng, Ren Hang, Li Xuepeng; Hao Junmin, Zheng Zhi, Yin Hongbo; Wu Lei, Gao Lin, Yu Hanchao
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