Despite a late push and victory over Qatar last night, China was finally knocked out of 2018 World Cup qualifying as other results didn’t go their way, bringing to an end that last bit of hope we’ve been hanging on to for far too long.
China is like the intelligent, procrastinating student who puts everything off until the night before and still earns decent marks, until something goes awry and it costs them. It worked for China getting into the third round (results wen their way & it was another final day win over Qatar) and into the 2015 Asian Cup (results had to go their way and did). Yet this time around, Uzbekistan and Syria got the results they needed leaving China one point short and on the outside looking in.
After China struggled to only one point from four matches, Marcello Lippi was brought in to replace Gao Hongbo and he proceeded to take China to 11 points from the remaining six matches, a major turnaround that includes its first win against South Korea in a major competition. He made a few changes around the pitch but kept the core the same, his Guangzhou Evergrande players Zeng Cheng, Feng Xiaoting, Zhang Linpeng, Gao Lin, and most of all his captain Zheng Zhi.
In the aftermath, praise has been heaped on Lippi and the question keeps being asked, would China be planning a trip to Russia if the change was made sooner? It’s easy to play this guessing game, especially as China finished so tantalizingly close to qualifying (or at least moving on to the next round), but doing so would be wrong.
Gao Hongbo, in his second stint as national team manager after a fairly successful previous stint, helped China get into this round and many, myself included, felt the CFA did the right thing giving him a shot to get China to Russia. While tactically Gao’s decisions can lead to head scratching, he’s always been a good man manager and gets results from his players. Of the results under Gao, the only one that can really be questioned is the home loss to Syria, but that was a side, especially so early in the competition, to easily underestimate and even under Lippi they only took one point from Syria.
The better question to ask is where does China under Lippi go from here? Last night’s game will most likely be Zheng Zhi’s swan song in a China uniform and the loss of a key presence over the past 15 years and one of China’s best players ever will leave a large hole in the center of the midfield. Many of those around him, especially in the midfield, but also in attack and defense are 30+ or fast approaching it.
So one of the better generations in Chinese football is bout to step aside and the one coming next appears to leave something to be desired and has little experience. There are a few options in defense and up top the future has to be Werder Bremen’s Zhang Yuning, who didn’t feature in the last two matches, and Wu Lei, who has been shockingly bad for the national team. The midfield is where hope subsides as few real replacements exist and Lippi has relied heavily on old veterans throughout qualification.
China doesn’t have any friendlies scheduled for the rest of 2017 until the East Asian Cup in December and then a year of friendlies in 2018 as they prepare for the Asian Cup which kicks off the first week of 2019. If Lippi is able to deal with the potential CFA meddling that could result due to this failure, he has the next year to prepare for one hell of an uphill task.
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