The third stage of Asia’s World Cup qualifying comes to an end this Tuesday evening when the tenth round of matches is played and, despite all the difficulties they’ve faced during the campaign, China still have a chance of making it to the play-offs thanks to their 1-0 win over Uzbekistan last Thursday. The final hurdle comes in Doha where China face Qatar knowing that only a win, along with some very favourable results elsewhere in their six team group, will see them avoid World Cup elimination. Here, we take a look at what happened in Wuhan last Thursday, what needs to happen elsewhere in the group, what we can expect from the already eliminated Qataris and how the Chinese team is looking ahead of a huge night for football across Asia.
China 1-0 Uzbekistan – Cheap Penalty Shouldn’t Undermine Good Performance
Had it not been for Gao Lin’s controversial late penalty giving China a desperately needed 1-0 win over Uzbekistan, Tuesday’s game in Qatar would have been a dead rubber. The spot kick was converted in the 84th minute after Feng Xiaoting threw himself to ground under a challenge from Anzur Ismailov. Sri Lankan referee Crishantha Dilan Perera’s awarding of the penalty was, to say the least, generous, but on the balance of play China were worthy of their victory thanks to a dominant first half display in front of over 51,000 fans in Wuhan.
Indeed, the first half saw China fire off twelve shots compared to Uzbekistan’s one, but their long term struggles in front of goal continued as they failed to make their advantage pay. Wu Lei was guilty of wasting more chances than anybody else, but Zhang Xizhe and Gao Lin squandered the best ones late in opening period.
Zhang’s chance came when he produced a great first touch off of Zheng Zhi’s though-ball to beat Ismailov and find himself one on one with goalkeeper Ignatiy Nesterov. Unfortunately, the Beijing Guo’an midfielder’s effort didn’t match his initial skill and his meek effort was gathered comfortably by the Uzbek custodian. Just minutes later, Yu Hanchao produced a fine cross from the left which found Guangzhou Evergrande teammate Gao Lin at the back post., but Gao failed to generate any power with a header which was blocked by Ismailov before it tested Nesterov.
As the second half got going, China’s failure to take their chances appeared as though it was going to prove costly as the visitors looked like an entirely different side from the nervy outfit which bumbled their way through the first 45 minutes. Less than two minutes after the restart, Marat Bikmaev dispossessed inexperienced right-back Deng Hanwen in a dangerous position before squaring for Igor Sergeev. Thankfully, the former Beijing Guo’an forward showed the kind of form which was symptomatic of his time brief time in the Chinese capital when he failed to hit the target from close range, but it proved to be a warning that Samvel Babyan’s men meant business in the second half.
The Uzbek pressure continued as Server Djeparov blazed over from 12 yards despite having time to compose himself and goalkeeper Zeng Cheng did well to tip Eldor Shomurodov’s close range header over the bar after initially gifting the opportunity by flapping at a corner. Less than a year ago, you’d have expected China to wilt under the pressure, but the team has a different mentality under Lippi and they were able to survive the the momentum shift to come back into the game and create chances of their own. Uzbekistan were undoubtedly the better side across the second period, but China were able to keep things competitve and give Feng Xiaoting the platform from which to perform his dive.
With the clock ticking down, Deng Hanwen looped a cleared ball into the Uzbek box following a corner and Feng was able to get goalside of Ismailov. The Changchun Yatai centre back stuck a speculative leg out for the ball and may have made minimal contact with Feng above the waste. Two seconds after the initial challenge, the 31-year-old’s legs suddenly and spectacularly went out from under him and he crashed to the turf.
Despite the apparently obvious simulation, Perera pointed at the spot to the mortified protestations of Ismailov and his teammates. With over 50,000 fans celebrating wildly, there was little chance of the Sri Lankan changing his mind and Gao Lin was able to handle the incredible levels of pressure he was under to slot home from 12 yards and give China hope heading into this Tuesday night.
Syria Win Over Qatar Dampens Celebrations
Things may have gone well in Wuhan on Thursday night but, at the same time China were edging past Uzbekistan, Syria were earning a decisive 3-1 victory over Qatar in Malaysia. That means that, as well as China defeating Qatar, Syria and Uzbekistan both have to lose their matches against Iran and South Korea, respectively. To make matters worse, Syria’s big win means they now have a goal difference advantage of four over China which will prove very difficult to turn around and could prove to be the key factor in deciding who makes it to the play-off.
Thursday’s other game turned out better for China as South Korea were held to a scoreless draw by Iran in Seoul. Had the Koreans managed to defeat the already qualified Iranians, they would have guaranteed themselves a spot in Russia meaning they may have had little motivation to get a result away to Uzbekistan on Tuesday. As it stands, though, the Taegeuk Warriors must win in Tashkent to guarantee automatic qualification, while knowing that a defeat could see them eliminated altogether.
Table Courtesy of wikipedia
Tuesday’s other match sees Syria travel to Iran in what looks, on paper, to be the most predictable of the three matches. Carlos Queiroz’s charges were the first team in Asia to officially make it to the World Cup and have not conceded a single goal in nine matches during this round of qualification. Team Melli have also won all four of their home matches, so the Syrians chances don’t look good.
However, it must be remembered that the job is already done for Iran who are guaranteed to finish as group winners. That in itself may be enough to diminish their motivation but, when one factors in the close political relationship between the governments of the two nations, it’s not beyond the realms of possibility that Syria could leave Iran with some kind of result. That’s not to suggest that Iran will intentionally throw the game, simply that the circumstances this match is being played under – with a highly-motivated Syria taking on an indifferent Iran – mean this isn’t the home banker it would otherwise appear to be.
Even if Iran do win, they’ve only scored eight goals in nine matches during this round of qualifying, meaning a victory by more than two goals is highly unlikely. That means China must win by at least two in Doha to stand a realistic chance of turning Syria’s goal difference advantage around.
The Maroon Looking to End Qatar-strophic Qualifying Round on a High
The one upside of Syria’s victory over Qatar is that it means The Maroon are the first team in Group A to be knocked out of contention, so they have nothing but pride to play for when they host the Chinese. Having been drawn together in the last round of qualifying, these two have been familiar foes and this is the fourth time they are going to play each other in less than two years. Qatar eased to a 1-0 victory the last time these two met in Doha in October 2015 but, since then, China have defeated the Qataris 2-0 in Xi’an and played out a scoreless draw with them in Kunming.
Chinese fans will be hoping that the victorious clash in Xi’an will form the prototype for this match-up as the Qataris came into that game with nothing to play for and fielded a weakened team, accordingly. The circumstances were very different then, though, as the Gulf nation had already secured their passage through to the final round and were on a high.
Since then, Qatar have had a torrid time, getting through two managers as all the optimism generated by a stellar 2015 disappeared. Jose Daniel Carreno, who masterminded their progression through to this round, was let go after kicking it off with two defeats and Uruguayan compatriot Jorge Fossatti replaced him. Fossatti took seven points from five games, before surprisingly resigning after an impressive 3-2 home win over South Korea.
The 64-year-old’s successor is Spaniard Felix Sanchez who oversaw a couple of friendly wins over Andorra and Turkmenistan, before losing when it counted against Syria. That defeat guarantees that (presuming there is no change of venue) 2022 will see Qatar become the first country to host a World Cup without having previously qualified for a finals since Italy in 1934.
It’s for that reason that we can expect Qatar to put up a fight when China come to town as there is pride to be salvaged and a World Cup to build towards – even if it’s in five years and not one. When Qatar took their foot off the gas against China in Xi’an they could do so knowing that they had another round of competitive matches to look forward to starting later in the year. This time around, they know this will be their last meaningful match until the Asian Cup in January 2019.
Qatar have a promising young generation that have underachieved in this round of qualifiers, and China shouldn’t be complacent about their opposition. Winger and captain Hasan Al Haydos offers a consistent and dangerous threat, as does 20-year-old winger Akram Afif who plays his football for Eupen in Belgium. Having headed in the winning goal against them in Doha last time out, China will know all about the threat offered by lofty midfield powerhouse Karim Boudiaf and his Marouane Fellaini-esque qualities, while Ali Assadalla’s goal against Syria highlights the attacking threat he offers from midfield.
Arguably, Qatar’s biggest potential star is marauding left-back Abdelkarim Hassan who, at his best, is a terrifying prospect for any opposition right-back. The 24-year-old looked fantastic in 2015 and early 2016, but hasn’t quite kicked on since then. Hassan remains a real threat going forward but, as can be seen from Syria’s third goal in stoppage time last Thursday, he does have a tendency to try and do too much by himself at times which can leave him prone to making the occasional costly error.
Indeed, aside from lacking an obvious goalscorer in the absence of veteran Uruguayan born forward Sebastien Soria, Qatar’s biggest weakness looks to be at the back. 13 goals conceded in nine matches at this stage doesn’t look too bad but, given that just 1.67 goals have been scored per match in this low scoring group, China’s hopes of finding the net against Qatar should be higher than they are against any other opponents at this stage. Goalkeeper Saad Al-sheeb also failed to cover himself in glory against Syria and, if China can hit enough shots on target, it seems likely one or two might go in.
Lippi Likely to Make Changes, Despite Impressive Display
It may have taken a theatrical dive from Feng Xiaoting to secure victory against Uzbekistan on Thursday, but China can be still be proud of a performance which saw them come out as the better side across 90 minutes. As expected, Lippi continued with the 4-3-3 he has favoured since taking charge of the side last November and this is probably the best performance China has put on since the veteran Italian took charge. The 1-0 win over South Korea in March was a monumental achievement, but China haven’t dominated a half against opposition of the caliber of Uzbekistan in a long time and, even when things started going against them in the second period, Lippi’s men were able to weather the storm and pull through to win.
The method of victory may have left a sour taste in the mouth for some, but China would have been hard done by not to leave Wuhan with three points after a very good display in almost all areas of the field. Ultimately, as was the case when Zhang Linpeng pulled a similar stunt to win a penalty against Syria in June, the reason China have needed to resort to such methods to score is not because their overall play hasn’t been good enough, but because the finishing of their attackers remains easily their biggest weak spot.
With Werder Bremen’s Zhang Yuning absent in the wake of a communications breakdown with the CFA over his availability for national team training, Gao Lin was the only realistic choice to start the game up front and it wasn’t a surprise to see him flanked by Wu Lei and Yu Hanchao on either side. Although it’s been beefed up a bit by two penalties in the last two games, Gao’s international scoring record remains a disappointing 20 goals in 94 matches and he showed why with a poor close range header with his only chance from open play against Uzbekistan.
Despite Gao’s struggles away from the penalty spot, the biggest culprit throughout this qualifying campaign has been Wu Lei who hasn’t scored for the national team since March 2016 despite having a slew of chances. Lippi seems to have wisely given up on the habit of previous managers to play Wu through the middle where he’s never looked good but, even from the wing, Wu continues to squander the kind of opportunities Shanghai SIPG fans are used to him scoring week after week at club level.
However, with Zhang Yuning being sent to Tianjin to play for the Zhejiang under-20 side at the National Games (yes, really) rather than Qatar, and Xiao Zhi more likely to reprise his role as a substitute offering a long ball alternative later in the game, it looks very likely that Gao will start the match as the center forward and Wu Lei will also certainly play on one of the wings.
The same cannot be said for Yu Hanchao who, despite producing one excellent cross to create Gao’s headed chance, generally looked a little bit lost on the opposite wing to Wu Lei. This game may see either Yin Hongbo, Wang Yongpo or Zhang Xizhe start there instead. None of that trio is as direct as Yu, but they’re all better on the ball and it wouldn’t be a surprise to see any of them line-up there on the flank Tuesday night. However, it could be Zhang who gets the nod further up the pitch if he is left out of the midfield where he started on Thursday.
With Huang Bowen and Wu Xi still out through injury, Zheng Zhi and Hao Junmin look shoe-ins to start again in the midfield three for this game. Hao did OK, but it was Zheng who really shone by providing solid protection to the defence while playing some excellent passes to launch the attack. The game did start to pass the 36-year-old by a little in the second half, but he remains the central figure in Lippi’s China.
If Zhang Xizhe is pushed further up the field, it’s quite possible that an old Guangzhou Evergrande teammate of Zheng Zhi’s could come in to play alongside him. Zhao Xuri replaced Zhang at half-time against Uzbekistan and offers a different option to Beijing Guo’an man. As well as being able to sit in and offer cover as an out and out defensive midfielder, Zhao can also be more of a direct runner who ploughs box-to-box if needed. Eyebrows were raised when League One side Tianjin Quanjian paid big money to sign the apparently declining Zhao from Evergrande prior to the 2016 season but, after helping his club secure promotion, the 31-year-old has undergone something of a career resurrection in this season’s CSL where he has proven to be a key part of Quanjian’s march into AFC Champions League contention.
In defence, Li Xuepeng caught the eye of the AFC with an impressive display at left-back which justified his recall to the team and he, like centre back Feng Xiaoting, look certain to start. At present, their Evergrande teammate Zhang Linpeng is a fitness doubt, but may be moved from centre back to right back if he is available. 22-year-old Deng Hanwen, who plays his football in China League One with Beijing Renhe, looked good in the first half against Uzbekistan last week, but struggled after the interval when the visitors lifted their game. There were a couple of very shaky moments for the youngster and, with Qatar left-back Abdelrakim Hassan possibly barreling towards him, Lippi may want the more assured Zhang to move wide. The only down side to that is that it would mean the unconvincing Ren Hang starting at centre-back but, with Qatar’s threats primarily coming from wide areas, the move could be sensible choice.
Barring a late injury, there is no doubt that Zeng Cheng will start in goal.
Qatar losing to Syria on Thursday should, in theory make China’s job easy, but it could make the game much tighter than it otherwise would be. Had Qatar beaten the Syrians, they’d be in the same boat as China meaning they’d have to win to have any chance of making the play-off. Barring an early goal, that would likely have meant a wide open affair where the Qatari’s had to attack and would leave China plenty of chances of their own to score.
As it stands, while Qatar will want to win to end a disappointing qualifying campaign on a high, they will also be scared of enduring a humiliating home defeat in their last competitive game for some time. That means they will want to keep it tight and China’s chances may be limited. Given the visitors’ continuing struggles in front of goal, that is a major problem. That being said Qatar have problems at the back and in goal so China scoring is definitely a possibility.
The issue is whether the Chinese can score enough to turn around the four goal difference with Syria and the answer is almost certainly no. Given how a China desperate for goals will likely leave themselves open at the back as the game goes on, there’s a reasonable chance the Qatari’s will find the net, too. A 1-1 draw seems like a sensible prediction here but, in honour of the optimism created by last Thursday’s win, we’ll say 2-1 China as the best possible outcome.
Unfortunately, that doesn’t look like being enough as Iran vs Syria looks likely to be a low scoring affair with a 0-0 draw or 1-0 home win being the most probable outcomes. Factor into that the fact that Uzbekistan should be able to get a result against a Korean team who have been woeful on the road over the last year, and we are left with a disappointing night for China and at least another four year wait until the world’s most populous nation graces world football’s biggest stage.
Whatever happens, though, with all three matches kicking of at 23:00 Beijing time, it is sure to be a hell of a night.
Possible Line-up: (4-3-3) – Zeng Cheng; Zhang Linpeng, Feng Xiaoting, Ren Hang, Li Xuepeng; Hao Junmin, Zheng Zhi, Zhao Xuri; Zhang Xizhe, Gao Lin, Wu Lei
Qatar 1-2 China; Uzbekistan 1-1 South Korea; Iran 0-0 Syria
Predicted Final Table
|2||South Korea (Q)||10||4||3||3||12||11||+1||15|
|5||China PR (E)||10||3||3||4||8||10||−2||12|
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