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China vs South Korea East Asia Cup Preview: Q&A Special with Korean Football Expert Tim Lee

Ahead of China’s East Asia Cup opener against South Korea, WEF has followed on from its March collaboration with the Tavern of the Taeguk Warriors website to bring you a preview of Saturday’s match in Tokyo. WEF’s Jamie McIlroy has sent six questions to the Tavern’s Tim Lee and then answered a reciprocal half dozen queries. Find out Tim’s views to find out how South Korean fans view Chinese national team, what they think about their players moving to the CSL and what sort of team when can expect China to face this weekend before finding out who Jamie thinks are the Chinese players to look out for and what the likely outcome of the match is.

Jamie: To the outsider, it looked as though South Korea had a pretty disappointing World Cup qualifying campaign despite making it to the finals. Now that it’s all said and done and the World Cup draw’s been made, how are fans feeling about the state of the national team at present?

Tim: If you had asked me this question in October, the answer would have been quite simply despair. Shin Taeyong got his tactics all wrong against Russia and Morocco and it culminated in crushing defeats, and this off of the back of, as you mentioned, a very disheartening qualification which resulted in Korea falling backwards into the World Cup (again). Of course, the recent friendlies changed things, and a simpler tactical approach (think of an Simeone 4-4-2) against Colombia and Serbia in the November friendlies was far more encouraging, with a win and a draw respectively from those games indicating a more spirited, confident display from the Koreans.

That being said, there is still lots of improve, and to form rock-solid conclusions off of two home friendlies against jetlagged, experimental sides would be a fatal error. I think most Korean fans recognize that and even if there will be the usual, fanatical pre-World Cup hype that should come into swing next spring, most recognize that on paper as it stands we wouldn’t beat too many teams in the World Cup. It’s a genuine but reluctant acceptance of the underdog role.

Jamie: China’s 1-0 win in last March’s qualifier was an absolutely enormous deal here given the national team’s miserable record against South Korea in the past. What is received with equal amounts of shock and disdain across the Yellow Sea? I also remember stories about South Korean fans not showing much interest in the home qualifier of 2016 because China weren’t taken to be serious opponents. Not sure how exaggerated that was, but do Korean fans now have more respect for the Chinese team after the defeat in Changsha?

Tim doesn’t think Yu Dabao’s goal in March made much difference to South Korea’s view of China

Tim: It will disappoint you to say this, but I suspect the 1-0 loss was looked more in the light of “Korea played extremely poorly” as opposed to “China played well”, and fans probably still consider China to be minnows. The more educated observers probably recognize China’s growth both because of the CSL’s rise but also because of Marcelo Lippi taking over at the helm of the national team. Still, I genuinely do not feel as if Koreans consider China as “worthy opponents” on footballing terms and I would agree that China still aren’t taken to be serious opponents from a typical Korean standpoint.

That said, this comes from a fanbase that has seen their squad consistently qualify for the World Cup over generations and memories of 2002 still linger in Korean minds. I think we’re quite obtuse really to think that qualification should be a cakewalk and it is our own failings that have impeded that – the Korean team of course hasn’t been up to par in the last two campaigns, but it’s high time Koreans recognized that the rest of Asia is getting much stronger while our national program remains stagnant due to structural problems and bad management. We’ll probably recognize this when it comes to bite us in the ass one day (see, USA).

Jamie: How seriously is this tournament taken in South Korea? What sort of a team can we expect to see and how much do fans really care about the outcome?

It isn’t really taken too seriously, but I don’t think Korea takes it any less seriously than other countries. It’s a general recognition that the competition serves a purpose and the die-hard football fans and casual national team observers certainly will tune in for a couple of games. The team is far from exciting or inspiring, but it is much more pragmatic. Shin Taeyong has picked players to fit his system and isn’t going off of the chart, instead sticking to the tested player pool from the past couple of years (which, given that they weren’t fruitful, is frustrating, but understandable). If the side goes 0-3 and loses horrendously to Japan, or something like that, then of course fans will care, but otherwise I’d like to think most fans realize that the result isn’t the be-all end-all – it’s finding the right players to play in the World Cup. Spots are very much up for grabs for starters central defense, goalkeeper, and a forward and midfield slot, and backup roles to other players will also need to be clinched.

Jamie: I think Kwon Kyung-won quietly went under the radar as one of the best centre backs in the CSL this season playing for Fabio Cannavaro’s ACL-bound Tianjin Quanjian (they picked up 47 points in the 21 games he played and just 7 points in the other 9 matches). How is he viewed in South Korea and does the general perception remain that Koreans fail to progress or go backwards after they move to China?

If I’m being truly honest I think fans are reserving judgement. More supporters swooned over Jeonbuk’s Kim Minjae than over Kwon, and this is probably because he quite simply plays in Korea. Kwon probably has, due to this, slid under the radar, and despite being the most expensive Asia-based Korean player, he’s got far less name recognition than some of his Korea-based compatriots. As for the general perception, I think there is a sort of disillusionment whenever a Korean player elects to play outside of Korea, but not in Europe, either because its a cash-grab or a sideways move showing a lack of ambition. That said, it isn’t like fans are piling on pressure on players who do go to China.

However, the example of Hong Jeongho starting at Augsburg, but leaving to the CSL, and then being pushed out by Trent Sainsbury (and finding himself with no club now) doesn’t reflect well on Koreans playing in China. You’ll also hear the “ah, classic Chinese defense” whenever Korea concedes a silly goal in a backline that has 2-3 China-based players. I’d say that regretfully that Koreans who move to China generally do not improve – and this is personal opinion – and some, like Hong, have regressed mightily. (That said, the K League isn’t that much of a step up.)

Jamie: Which players should China look out for?

Lee Jaesung is my favorite player in the K League – and that’s not surprising, given that he is the MVP. With Jeonbuk, he plays more of an attacking, incisive role – think of an Isco, but with an exceptionally good eye on a pass, and less marks on finishing. With the KNT, he played two games in that Atletico 4-4-2 system as a left midfielder and did quite well. When he drifts centrally he is excellent at combination play and one-touch movement, but in the transition/when defending he perfectly fits the tireless, aggressive pressing role attributed to him which allows the central midfielder nearest him – usually Ki Sungyueng – to move up on the field without worrying if someone has got his back if they lose the ball. I don’t know what system nor what position he’ll play in these games (I suspect, for consistency and building a tactically sound system for the World Cup, he’ll stick as a LM) but he’s a major threat.

Otherwise, there’s not too much to be raving about. Kim Shinwook is really, really, really tall and will probably be Korea’s Plan B aerial option in this competition. Defensively the aforementioned Kim Minjae (the baby-faced monster, he’s called) will look to shine in central defense, and the young defender was among the league leaders in blocks, interceptions, aerial challenges on his way to a Best K League XI award. Mobile fullbacks Choi Chulsoon and Kim Jinsu (formerly of Hoffenheim) will also likely be starters in Russia and push very high up the field. (Incidentally, all of these players play for league champions Jeonbuk Hyundai.) Meanwhile, veterans Lee Keunho and Yeom Kihun will certainly be difficult threats. They know the Asian game very well and still have something to give to the national set-up.

Jamie: How do you think Korea will lineup and what do you expect the score to be?

I think there will be switching between the 4-4-2 and the 4-2-3-1/4-1-4-1. Given that the 4-4-2 is more a defensive, counter-attacking oriented set-up, we’ll probably see a 4-2-3-1/4-1-4-1 at least for this match, with a switch to the 4-4-2 maybe against Japan.

Shin has kept his cards close to his chest and will rotate anyways, but I’ll go for:

Lee Jeonghyeop

Lee Jaesung – Lee Myungjoo – Ko Yohan – Yun Illok

Jung Wooyoung

Kim Jinsu – Jang Hyunsoo – Kim Minjae – Choi Chulsoon

Cho Hyunwoo

I’d say a 2-1 win for Korea would be a fair result. The defense may still be rocky but the side has enough talent for a goal or two.

Tim: China have missed out on the World Cup again, briefly what was the reaction/is the current mood surrounding soccer in the country and this national team specifically? Is there any hype?

I wouldn’t say there’s a great deal of hype, per se, but ther was certainly a sense in the latter phases of World Cup qualification that the national team was really improving under Lippi. They followed up the 1-0 win over South Korea last March with a narrow defeat in Iran, an unfortunate draw with Syria and wins against Uzbekistan and Qatar. I think there was a strong element of frustration that they hadn’t hired Lippi sooner as results and performances greatly improved under him and, with South Korea and Uzbekistan struggling for consistency, China might have had a genuine shot at getting through if they hadn’t had Gao Hongbo in charge for the first four games of qualification.

That being said, a 2-0 defeat to Serbia and 4-0 hammering by Colombia in the last round of friendlies brought more optimistic supporters back down to earth. Although the performances in those games weren’t actually too bad, it showed where China realistically are in the international pecking order.

Tim: How is Marcelo Lippi treating the competition? Experimentation? Full strength? A mix of both?

China manager Marcelo Lippi has left out several key players for this tournament

Jamie: It’s largely an experimental squad with a few veterans in there to balance things out. Only five outfield players have more than 20 caps and three of those – Yu Dabao, Wu Xi and Zhao Xuri – have made limited international appearances over the last season because they’ve either been injured or, in the case of Zhao Xuri, only recently returned to the international fold after a rediscvery of form.

The team is not as young as some would have liked with only six players born in 1995 or later, but that’s more an indication of the lack of quality available in that generation rather than Lippi’s unwillingness to use youngsters. Instead, there’s a big crop of guys aged between 24 and 32 who have very limited international experience.

Tim: What player(s) should Korea look out for in the tie, in addition to the usual threats?

Jamie: Well, you’ll know all about Yu Dabao who scored the winner against South Korea last March and he’s back in the national team set-up after missing much of the second half of the season through injury. With well known names Wu Lei, Gao Lin, Feng Xiaoting and Zheng Zhi all absent, there aren’t too many players expected to make an impact, but there are a few who could use this competition to make a mark.

Uncapped 22-year-old attacker Wei Shihao had some spectacular moments for Shanghai SIPG this season and expectations would undoubtedly go into overdrive if he could replicate that on an international level. Guangzhou Evergrande winger Zheng Long has struggled for game time this season, but could make a big impact if he can recapture his 2016 club form, while I’ve been impressed by 29-year-old Hebei CFFC midfielder Yin Hongbo over the last few seasons and hope he can use this tournament as a springboard to solidify his place in the national team set up for the next couple of years.

Defensively, 22-year-old right-back Deng Hanwen was playing in the second tier with Beijing Renhe this year but still earned his first caps and showed the sort of threat he can offer going forward with two cracking goals against in a friendly against the Philippines in June. Guangzhou Evergrande defender Zhang Linpeng is also worth a mention as this tournament is likely going to be used as an attempt at completing his long anticipated conversion from right-back to centre-back. Zhang, who will captain the squad, is a massive star in China and would be widly considered to be the “best” player in this squad, although he’s never fully convinced in the middle of the defence. Latest news suggests Zhang might not be fit for the first game, though, and that would be a big blow to China’s back line.

Tim: How do you expect the match to play out? Will China look to counter? Come out all guns blazing? 

Jamie: China certainly won’t come out all guns blazing and with such a relatively inexperienced squad I’d imagine Lippi will approach this game fairly cautiously. Lippi started making defensive minded adjustments during the first half in the 4-0 defeat to Colombia and will likely set up in a defensive-minded 433, though three centre-backs is also a possibility.

Tim: Given that China beat Korea 1-0 in WCQ earlier this year, is there a sense of confidence in the Chinese camp to once again banish Gonghanzeung?

Jamie: Given the absence of so many big names, there’s unlikely to be too much confidence of achieving another victory but, at the same time, China don’t play with the same levels of fear they did before Lippi took over and are unlikely to be overwhelmed by what has traditionally been a superior opponent. I think it’s fair to say that China will be confident of being competitive which they weren’t when these two sides met in the 2015 addition of this tournament.

Tim: Lineup prediction // final thoughts // score prediction (if you dare!)

Jamie: The line-up is really hard to predict, so I’ll go with the team I’d like to see given the players available and the desire to bring through some less experienced talents while remaining competitive:

Yan Junling

Deng Hanwen, Zhang Linpeng (Li Xuepeng if Zhang’s not fit), Liu Yiming, Zheng Zheng

Yin Hongbo, Zhao Xuri, Liao Lisheng

Wei Shihao, Yu Dabao, Zheng Long

While patriotic football fans will think otherwise, the result of this game is incidental compared to the performance and I’ll predict China to put on a decent display culminating in a 2-1 defeat. It’s really hard to say, though, and a lot of more long-sighted fans are just happy to see China actually use this tournament for development rather than picking a full strength team with the solitary short term aim of getting one over on the regional rivals.

You can follow Tim Lee on Twitter at  @taeguk_warrior

Based in China for five years, Jamie has been exploring tiny little third tier Hubei cities without football teams or decent internet connections, but is now a regular at China League One side Wuhan Zall. A keen football afficionado, he regularly takes in the Chinese Super League, enjoying matches in Shanghai, Hangzhou, Guangzhou and Nanjing. Jamie is also a keen observer of the fortunes of the Chinese National side.

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