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East Asia Cup Preview: Can Experimental China Team Win Regional Bragging Rights?

The seventh edition of the East Asia Cup kicks off this Saturday in Japan when China take on South Korea and WEF is here to preview it. We’ll have individual match previews and reports throughout the eight day competition, but here we take a look at what the East Asia Cup actually is, what sort of squad China will be bringing over to Japan and what chances Marcello Lippi’s men have of succeeding.

What is the East Asia Cup?

The East Asia Cup, as the catchily named EAFF E-1 Football Championship is commonly known, is a four team round-robin tournament held every two or three years by the East Asian Football Federation. This will be the seventh edition of this tournament since its inauguration and hosting duties are rotated between Japan, South Korea and China. Those three regional powerhouses are joined by one qualifying side. On this occasion it is North Korea who made it to their fourth regional championship by securing a clean sweep of Hong Kong, Chinese Taipei and Guam in Hong Kong last November.

Given the current missile related tension in the region, North Korea’s attendance at a tournament which will be played out at Tokyo’s Ajinimoto Stadium obviously adds a bit of extra spice to a competition constantly played out in the shadow of regional rivalries.

South Korea celebrate a goal against China at the last East Asia Cup

The biggest issue the East Asia Cup faces is that it takes place outside of official FIFA dates, meaning that players based outside of the region are not able to participate. In practice, that has little effect on China and North Korea who rarely export their players abroad, but it means that the big stars of Japan and South Korea are absent and the tournament cannot be used as a genuine barometer of the relative strengths of the side.

That explains why China have managed to win two of the six editions held since 2003, despite lagging a long way behind Japan and South Korea in World Cup qualification and Asian Cups. South Korea are the tournament’s most successful team with three titles, while Japan earned their solitary crown when they lasted hosted the competition in 2010.

The last edition of this tournament was held in Wuhan, China in 2015 and gave an early demonstration of the kind of surprises this format throws up when North Korea defeated Japan 2-1 in the opener. Later that day, South Korea comfortably dispatched the hosts 2-1 and then drew their remaining two games to secure the title. China recovered from their opening defeat by overcoming North Korea in the second match, but a 1-1 draw with Japan in the final game meant that Alan Perrin’s men failed to pip the Taegeuk Warriors to first place.

The absence of big names such as Son Heung-min, Ki Sung-yeung, Koo Ja-cheol, Shinji Kagawa, Shinji Okazaki and Yuto Nagatomo undoubtedly hurts the tournament, but the regional rivalries, competition format and chance to see some new faces break through means there will be plenty to look out for over the next couple of weeks. Not least from a China team that has taken the rare step of naming a relatively inexperienced international squad instead of trying to field a full strength team in order to take advantage of their more renowned opponents’ weakened line-ups.

The Chinese Squad – Lippi looks to the future despite lack of youth

China’s World Cup winning manager Marcelo Lippi has decided to take a largely inexperienced squad to Japan and is obviously looking for less familiar faces who can play a role at the January 2019 Asian Cup. With only six players who qualify as under-23s, the squad lacks the raw youth desired by some, but an average age of 26 hardly speaks to an aged squad and just six of the 24 man contingent has more than 20 caps. Indeed, the other 18 players in the squad average just 3.4 caps a piece, and so it’s clear this tournament is being used as a vehicle to look at some new, although not necessarily young, players.

Recent national team stalwarts such as Zheng Zhi, Feng Xiaoting, Gao Lin, Wu Lei, Hao Junmin, Zeng Cheng, Zhang Xizhe and Yu Hanchao have been given a holiday, while Guangzhou R&F left-back Jiang Zhipeng had to withdraw from the squad after picking up a rib injury in training.

With the possible exception of Zhang Xizhe, whose absence may be more to do with being in the CFA’s bad book after picking up a long domestic ban, it would be fair to assume that the above list of missing players are shoe-ins for the 2019 Asian Cup and so Lippi doesn’t feel as though he needs to see them. Conversely, it is clear that Lippi has a reason for calling up the four most experienced players in the team.

Yu Dabao, seen here after scoring winning goal against South Korea in March, is one of the few experienced international players in China’s squad

Yu Dabao and Wu Xi both missed serious chunks of the season, including international breaks, through injury and so need more time to work with Lippi. Zhao Xuri’s 72 caps makes him the most experienced player in the squad, but a career renaissance in the Tianjin Quanjian midfield meant that the 32-year-old only ended three years in the international wilderness in August and so it makes sense that he should spend as much time as possible with the national team over the coming year. It’s interesting to note that Zhao made his international debut as an 18-year-old at the inaugural 2003 edition of this tournament and is the only player in this year’s competition to have featured in the first one.

In the case of Zhang Linpeng, the reason for his call-up can only be that Lippi wants to give him a run at becoming the high level centre-back he’s been been touted as potentially being for years. Few would argue against the assertion that Zhang is the best right-back in China but for several years there’s been talk of him transitioning into the middle of the defence for both club and country and that’s never quite manifested into reality. Given that the other three recognised centre backs in the squad have a total of three caps between them and one of them is He Guan, who had a bit of a horror show on his international debut in the 4-0 defeat to Colombia, it’s clear that this is Zhang’s chance to shine in the role. Unfortunately, it seems as though the 28-year-old may not be fit for the first game against South Korea and that could leave China dangerously light in the middle of defence.

Among the six U-23 players called into the squad, right-back Deng Hanwen and centre-back Gao Zhunyi have won caps this year, while midfielder He Chao has been previously called up to the squad. The three new faces are Wei Shihao, Liu Yiming and Yang Liyu. Among that trio, Shanghai SIPG forward Wei Shihao is probably the most well-known based on a couple of outstanding performances in the CSL this season. Wei is yet to show any kind of consistency for either SIPG or the China under-23 team, but he clearly has talent and a goal or two in this tournament would undoubtedly send the Chinese media hype machine into overdrive.

Liu Yiming is a big, bordering on lumbering, centre-back who was a regular in Tianjin Quanjian’s successful Asian Champions League qualification campaign. Despite being a little short of pace, Liu looks to have all the physical tools to develop into a decent centre-back but his decision-making remains an issue. Playing under Fabio Cannavaro, who knows a thing or two about playing center back, Liu dramatically improved as the season went on and his call-up is a sign of how much he has kicked-on. On the other side of Tianjin, TEDA’s 20-year-old Yang Liyu is the real wildcard in this team and his selection was certainly a surprise. For much of the season, Yang was TEDA’s sacrificial U-23 player to be subbed off early in the first half, but he got more game time as the season wore on and, along with some decent recent displays for the U-23 national teams, his two goals and two assists were clearly enough to encourage Lippi to have a look at him.

Outside of the youngsters and the international veterans, Lippi favourites Yin Hongbo and Xiao Zhi have been given another chance to impress, while Fu Huan, Liao Lisheng, He Guan and Zhao Yuhao form a quartet of 24-year-olds with just 8 caps between them. There are some guys in their late 20s such as Zheng Long, Zheng Zheng, Fan Xiaodong and Zhang Wentao who have been given a chance to shine this time around, but only the two Zhengs look like they have a realistic shot at making the Asian Cup squad in 14 months time.

Prospects

Had China followed their previous policy of picking very strong teams for this tournament, they’d have pretty good shot of winning it given how an already under-performing South Korean team had been stripped of its best players and the hosts Japan only have two players with more than ten caps. However, Lippi will be fielding a largely inexperienced side and saving face is the best that can realistically be hoped for. We’ll be previewing each game individually as the tournament progresses, but a second or third place finish with a few players taking their chance to shine would be a perfectly satisfactory outcome.

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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