China’s East Asia Cup ended in disappointing fashion with a 1-1 draw against North Korea on Saturday, but it wasn’t all bad as an inexperienced side showed some cause for optimism in matches against South Korea and Japan. Here we take a look at how each player performed and the state their future international prospects. All ratings start with a baseline of 6 and players exceeding or failing to meet expectations has been taken into account. Only players who play more than 45 minutes are rated.
Marcello Lippi (manager) 5
The Italian’s tournament was shaping up to be a good one after a battling display in the second half against South Korea and very good performance in a losing effort against Japan. Unfotunately, a hopeless display in the final game against North Korea significantly sours the overall impression of this year’s East Asia Cup and build on fears that the World Cup winning boss is succumbing to the temptation of excessive tinkering displayed by predecessors Alain Perrin and Gao Hongbo.
In the first game, a half-time switch from 4-3-3 to 3-5-2 paid dividends with a massively improved display and that carried through into the second game where the team, set-up in a 3-4-3, held their own against Japan for 90 minutes. The 3-4-3 remained against North Korea, but this time Fu Huan, who has played his entire career on the right side of the pitch, was played at left wing-back and struggled terribly. That prompted Lippi to make a substitution just 24 minutes in and is a sign of uncertainty in the camp.
Of course, this is an experimental team and an ultimately meaningless tournament but, following on from some strange alterations against Qatar in October and some even more unusual decisions in November’s friendlies against Serbia and Colombia, one fears that Lippi may be deviating from what made the first year of his reign such a success – playing players in the positions they are used to and having the faith to stick with his decisions.
Hopefully this will just be an anomaly, but until October it looked as though Lippi has made all the right decisions and had done as well as he possibly could have. Cracks are appearing, though, and, if things don’t take a turn for the better in the coming year, the game against North Korea could come to be seen as a decisive turning point where Lippi’s magic wore out.
Yan Junling (goalkeeper) 7.5 – Appearances 1, Starts 1, Minutes played 90, Goals conceded 2
Just one game for the Shanghai SIPG goalkeeper who did more than enough in the opener against South Korea to cement his place in Lippi’s plans. Yan couldn’t do anything about either of the goals he shipped and made some excellent saves to keep the deficit at 2-1 before Yu Dabao’s late equaliser. His save from Yeom Ki-hyun’s close range header in the first half was excellent and made another very good stop from a long range effort after the interval.
The 26-year-old also made it through the match error free and looks like being China’s second choice behind Guangzhou Evergrande stalwart Zeng Cheng moving forward. Indeed, if the 2017 CSL goalkeeper of the season keeps improving at his current rate he may have supplanted Zeng by the end of 2018.
Wang Dalei (goalkeeper) 5.5 – Appearances 2, Starts 2, Minutes played 180, Goals conceded 3
A tournament where we got to see the best and worst of Wang but, as is so often the case with goalkeepers, it’s the worst that will be remembered. Left out of first game, but started second match against Japan where he had almost nothing to do for 80 minutes before shipping two late goals. Could probably have done better for both, although criticism of him for not keeping out Gen Shoji’s incredible 40-yard volley is harsh.
A more typical performance came in the North Korea game where he made a string of impressive saves, interspersed with some poor handling of corners, before undoing all of his hard work by making a total hash of Jong Il-gwan’s fairly soft 81st minute free kick. The Shandong Luneng stopper got his feet totally wrong and was nowhere near Jong’s effort as it sailed in the opposite direction.
With Yan Junling showing how far he’s come in the opening game and Zeng Cheng still likely to be Lippi’s first choice moving forward, Wang looks like he’s slipped down to third in the pecking order and may even struggle to make future 23-man squads unless he can show improved consistency.
Liu Yiming (centre-back) 7.5 – Appearances 3, Starts 3, Minutes played 270
One of six under-23 players in the squad, and the only youngster to play every minute of the tournament, Liu gave cause for muted optimism in this tournament with his generally mature displays in which he emerged as somewhat of a leader in an otherwise experienced back line. An undoubted physical specimen, the Tianjin Quanjian centre-back showed some signs of the same old issues he’s had with concentration in the past, but was a solid presence for the majority of the tournament as his central defensive partners struggled.
Liu is far from the finished article, but has already improved exponentially since your correspondent saw him regularly making basic errors in 2016 against inferior sides in China League One. It’s clear that a year and a half under the tutelage of Fabio Cannavaro, one of the best centre-backs of the 21st Century, has benefited the 22-year-old and another couple of seasons on this trajectory could see him become a key part of the national team’s qualification campaign for Qatar 2022.
Deng Hanwen (right-back) 7.5 – Appearances 2, Starts 2, Minutes played 180
This tournament became another feather in the cap of the 22-year-old whose progress in 2017 has been remarkable. Flagged up as one of the best right-backs in the 2016 League One season, it was a surprise to see Deng called up to the developmental China Cup squad last January but, after a mixed tournament in Nanning, the Chongqing native has kicked on significantly and demonstrated that with a dynamic second half display against South Korea.
Deng is undoubtedly better as a wing-back than as the right-back in a four man back line and he showed that in the first game where Lippi’s adjustment from a four to a five man defence gave him the freedom to push forward and become China’s best player of that half. The former Hohhot Zhongyou player was rested in the second game, but returned for the North Korea match, where he was one of China’s better players on the field despite an overall poor team performance.
Given that Deng was playing in the third tier China League Two as recently as 2014 and has never played a minute of top flight football, his progress has been remarkable. Rumours are that he is poised to move from newly-promoted Beijing Renhe to CSL behemoths Guangzhou Evergrande this summer. The move looks good on paper, but may hamper his playing time and he needs to play minutes as possible at the moment to ensure he continues to improve.
With possible Evergrande teammate Zhang Linpeng’s international future possibly being at centre-back, there’s a real chance that Deng could make the right-back position his own before the 2019 Asian Cup.
Fu Huan (right-back, left-back) 7 – Appearances 2, Starts 2, Minutes played 114
Left out of the first game, Fu was given a start against Japan where he performed very well and demonstrated what a great attacking option he offers streaking up and down the right flank. Unfortunately for the Shanghai SIPG man, Lippi decided to start him left wing-back against North Korea, despite the fact he has never played there at club level and clearly struggles on his left foot.
Needless to say, Fu struggled horribly to support the attack while playing on his weaker foot and suffered the indignity of being subbed off after just 24 minutes as Lippi adjusted from a 3-4-3 into a 4-3-3. Along with Deng Hanwen, the 24-year-old Fu shows that China have plenty of option on the right side of defence as they look towards the future. But Fu should be kept away from the left-side at all costs.
Li Xuepeng (left-back) 7 – Appearances 2, Starts 1, Minutes played 135, Assists 1
One of the more experienced players in the squad. Li was brought along to add some nous to an otherwise green defence and he did fine in his time on the field. Introduced as a left wing-back at half-time against South Korea, the versatile Guangzhou Evergrande defender showed his worth by delivering the pinpoint cross which allowed Yu Dabao to head in China’s equaliser.
Had far less of an impact in his 90 minutes against Japan, but held his own in what was a good overall team performance before being left out of the third game. Everyone knows where they are with the dependable Li. He’s not a top level talent, but can do a job and will likely be in and around the national team set-up over the next couple of years.
Zheng Zheng (centre-back, left-back) 5.5 – Appearances 3, Starts 3, Minutes played 270
Strange tournament for Zheng who was one of only two players to play every minute. The 28-year-old has been a career left-back at boyhood club Shandong Luneng, but Lippi continued the trend he started in November’s friendlies against Serbia and Colombia of trying out Zheng on the left side of a back three and the results haven’t been good.
There seemed to be a panic every time a high ball was played in Zheng’s direction and he looked to have the heading ability of a timid 14-year-old. That being said, Lippi’s chopping and changing meant that the CFA left-back of the season for three years between 2012 and 2014 spent just over half the tournament in his favoured role where he performed much better. He did also make a couple of key penalty area blocks.
A knee ligament rupture ins the summer of 2016 meant that Zheng lost almost a year of his career, but he could feasibly play a role for the national team moving forward. If he does, though, he should be kept as far away from the centre of defence as possible.
He Guan (centre-back) 4.5 – Appearances 2, Starts 1, Minutes played 135
The Shanghao SIPG centre back struggled again after having a nightmare of an international debut against Colombia in November. He was a halftime substitute for Gao Zhunyi against Japan and, while he was better than the player he replaced, he looked out of his depth and was at fault for the first goal. Not much better against North Korea and it really doesn’t look like the 24-year-old is ready for this level yet.
Gao Zhunyi (centre-back) 4 – Appearances 2, Starts 2, Minutes played 135
Not a good tournament for the 22-year-old who really struggled throughout his game and a half. Regularly caught out of position and slow to react to danger, the Hebei CFFC defender was China’s weak link in what was a poor defence to begin with. As many do, he struggled with the height and physicality of South Korea’s Kim Shin-wook, but was also looked slow against the Taegeuk Warrior’s other attackers.
In the second game against Japan he was regularly guilty of getting caught out of position and was hooked off at half-time, never to be seen again. The Shandong Luneng youth product is still young and has time to improve but, at the moment, it’s hard to see him returning to the senior team set-up in the near future.
He Chao (midfielder) 6 – Appearances 2, Starts 2, Minutes played 180
22-year-old He played the entirety of the first two games and proved to be a competent water carrier. The Changchun Yatai midfielder does the basics well, but not much more than that. He got about and played simple passes well, but doesn’t offer a great deal beyond the halfway line.
Another rumoured Guangzhou Evergrande winter target, He performed adequately considering he was making his senior debut against South Korea, but still doesn’t look close to unseating any of China’s more established midfielders such as Zheng Zhi, Hao Junmin or Zhang Xizhe. He also showed a really bad habit of daydreaming with the ball at his feet and getting dispossessed in dangerous areas which almost cost China in both games he played.
Zhao Xuri (midfielder) 6 – Appearances 2, Starts 2, Minutes played 180
The 32-year-old veteran was easily the most capped player in the squad and did plenty to justify his inclusion in the opener against South Korea with a dynamic performance which helped compensate for the weaknesses of those around him. Unfortunately for Zhao, after being rested against Japan, he couldn’t replicate that in the North Korea game where he was part of a midfield that was badly overrun and struggled to compete against what should have been an inferior side.
After a period in the wilderness, the former Guangzhou Evergrande midfielder resurrected his international career thanks to an excellent season with Tianjin Quanjian, but he needs to show more consistency in order to secure a place in Lippi’s plans. Given that the 2019 Asian Cup is Zhao’s last realistic hope of shining on the international stage, he’ll be disappointed he didn’t do more this time around to justify inclusion. That being said, Lippi seems to like him and he will likely be given more opportunities in 2018.
Zhao Yuhao (midfielder) 5 – Appearances 2, Starts 2, Minutes played 180
Your correspondent would be lying if he said that he understood why Zhao Yuhao was so highly regarded and the Hebei CFFC midfielder did little to sway other doubters with two underwhelming displays in Japan. After being left out of the first game, the former Hangzhou Greentown star started the matches against Japan and North Korea and failed to make much impression in either.
China played well as a team against Japan and so Zhao’s lack of impact had minimal effect, but he really struggled against North Korea where he seemed to spend most of the game chasing shadows. Few would doubt that Zhao’s ponytail is one of the best in the business, but the 24-year-old doesn’t seem to have significantly kicked on since a difficult 2016 AFC U-23 Championships and it’s hard to see him having a big role in the Chinese team moving forward.
Wu Xi (midfielder) 4.5 – Appearances 2, Starts 1, Minutes played 139
Disappointing tournament for the Jiangsu Suning man who failed to take his chance to overcome an underwhelming, injury hit season at club level. The 28-year-old had 45 caps to his name prior to this tournament, but little of that showed here as he struggled to make an impact in Japan. Was subbed off in the second half of a poor performance against South Korea and was then brought on as a first half substitute against North Korea.
Things started well for him in that game as his pass sprang Zhang Wenzhao on the counterattack in the build-up to China’s goal, but it was all downhill from there as the North Koreans dominated the second half with China’s midfield going missing. A couple of years ago, Wu looked like he’d be a feature of the national side for years to come, but he’s had a poor 2017 and it will be touch and go whether his international career will be able to recover.
Yin Hongbo (midfielder) N/A – Appearances 1, Starts 0, Minutes played 17
Surprise that the diminutive midfielder only featured for 17 minutes as he seemed to be a favourite of Lippi and helped improve China’s performance after he came on as a substitute against South Korea. We’ll see if this means Lippi has gone off Yin or whether he simply he didn’t need to see anymore of him. The latter seems more likely.
Zhang Wenzhao (right-wing) 8 – Appearances 2, Starts 1, Minutes played 107, Assists 2
A 30-year-old who played 101 minutes of Super League football for Guangzhou Evergrande in 2017 seemed like an absolutely bizarre choice for a squad that was supposed to be looking to the future, but Zhang’s performance in his brief time on the pitch in Japan showed that his call up was a very savvy move from Lippi rather than a sign of senility.
Even before transferring to Evergrande halfway through the 2016 season Zhang had struggled for regular playing time at Shandong Luneng, but he made the most of his opportunity here by leaving Japan with two assists in just 107 minutes of football. First introduced as a half-time substitute against Japan, Zhang went on to be the best player on the pitch in the second half and was finally rewarded for his efforts in stoppage time when he was fouled for the penalty which Yu Dabao converted.
He was then given a start against North Korea and made a pulsating run from inside his own half to set up Wei Shihao’s opener. He didn’t have a huge impact on the game after that, which may not be a surprise for a guy who has only stayed on the field for more than 60 minutes of competitive football three times in the last two seasons.
Zhang has undoubtedly made the most of his opportunity and has been the surprise package of this tournament. Whether or not he can build on this internationally or this turns out to be a brief flash of what might have been, remains to be seen.
Wei Shihao (left-wing) 7 – Appearances 3, Starts 3, Minutes played 218, Goals 2
As we mentioned in our South Korea preview, Wei came into this tournament as a player who could make an impact and he did that by scoring China’s first and last goal of the competition. It took the 22-year-old just eight minutes to find the net on his senior debut against South Korea with a very cool finish, and he doubled his tally with the opener against North Korea.
Two goals in your first three international games is undoubtedly a fantastic return, but it shouldn’t be forgotten that Wei did almost nothing of note beside that. He went missing along with the rest of his team after giving China the lead against South Korea before being subbed off at half-time. He then put in a truly dreadful display against Japan where he wildy hacked at numerous shots – the lowlight of which was a long range volley that went out for a throw-in. Meanwhile, his goal against North Korea was fairly straightforward with Zhang Wenzhao doing all the hard work and he didn’t contribute much beyond that.
The point is that the Shanghai SIPG attacker is a long way from being the finished article despite his goals. That being said, on a team where finding the back of the net has been the single biggest issue for a long time, having a player that has already scored more international goals in 2017 than golden boy Wu Lei can’t be a bad thing.
Yu Dabao (forward) 6.5 – Appearances 3, Starts 3, Minutes played 259, Goals 2
Two goals for the Beijing Guo’an forward are not to be sniffed at, but one of them was a stoppage time consolation penalty and the other came late in a game in which Yu had otherwise been largely anonymous. Still, Yu’s header to equalise against South Korea was a thing of beauty and was enough to show that even when the 29-year-old isn’t playing that well he can offer a threat.
Aside from the opening five minutes where he had a goal disallowed for offside, Yu largely replicated his quiet display against South Korea with a similar performance against their northern neighbors. In the Japan game, the former Dalian Aerbin man missed an excellent chance to put his side ahead from close range and otherwise struggled aside from his penalty spot conversion.
There’s no doubt that Yu deserves a spot in China’s squad moving forward but, despite his two strikes, he suffers from the same affliction of going missing that the vast majority of China’s attackers do and so is by no means guaranteed a starting place in future teams.
Yang Liyu (right-wing, forward) 5.5 – Appearances 3, Starts 1, Minutes played 83
Limited playing time for the youngest member of China’s squad and the truth is that he did little to impress. Still, one should be reluctant to condemn a 20-year-old based on 83 minutes of football and there’s no doubt that the youngster has plenty of potential.
Indeed, Yang is yet another target of Guangzhou Evergrande’s apparent winter spending spree and in a couple of years it’s quite possible we’ll see him back at this stage and making more of an impact. As it stands, though, Yang needs more time as he doesn’t look ready to play at this level yet.
Xiao Zhi (forward) 5.5 – Appearances 2, Starts 1, Minutes played 70
The big Guangzhou R&F centre-forward’s tournament started well when he came on as a substitute against South Korea and proved to enough of a physical handful for their defence to free up Yu Dabao, but much of that was undone with an anonymous display in the first half against Japan. The former Henan Jianye man was hooked at the interval and not seen again, and one wonders whether he has an international future given that he is already 32.
One thing that the game against South Korea proved is that Xiao has a role in the right circumstances as a Plan B to come on and give China a different dimension as a targetman that they otherwise lack. Given that, to much derision in some quarters, Xiao’s international career only started last summer, it’s possible his shelf-life may have already expired. But he might still find himself on the plane to the UAE for the 2019 Asian Cup with a clearly defined role of disruptive substitute.
Fan Xiaodong (left-wing) N/A – Appearances 1, Starts 0, Minutes played 28
Limited to one sub appearance as a defensive winger as China protected their fragile 1-0 lead against North Korea. The 30-year-old Changchun Yatai player was only called up as a replacement for Jiang Zhipeng who was injured in training and is unlikely to appear much moving forward.
All images courtesy of Osports
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