Late goals from Yu Kobayashi and Gen Shoji were enough to give Japan a hardfought victory over China and remove any chance Marcelo Lippi’s men have of winning the 2017 East Asia Cup. With 84 minutes on the clock, an inexperienced Chinese side looked as though they had done enough to earn a goalless draw, but Yu Kobayashi took advantage of some lax defending to put the hosts a goal ahaead, before centre-back Gen Shoji scored a bone-fide scorcher from over 40-yards out less than 5 minutes later. Yu Dabao was able to pull a stoppage time goal back from the penalty spot after the impressive Zhang Wenzhao drew a foul from Shuto Yamamto, but there was no time salvage a point at the Ajinimoto Stadium.
Given how much China’s performance improved after switching to three centre-backs against South Korea in the second half of Saturday’s 2-2 draw, it wasn’t a great surprise to see Marcelo Lippi start like that this time around. There were only four under-23 players in this evenings team, as opposed to the six who started on Saturday, but this was still a very inexperienced side, with eight of the of the starting XI boasting an average of just 2.75 pre-tournament caps between them.
EAST ASIA CUP
Yu Dabao 90+4 (pen)
However, with an even less experienced Japanese team denied access to foreign based stars such as Yuto Nagatomo, Maya Yoshida, Hiroki Sakai, Makoto Hasebe, Shinji Kagawa, Keisuke Honda and Shinji Okazaki, China never looked over-matched and were competitive throughout. Indeed, the two sides cancelled each other out during a tedious opening 45 minutes which featured no shots on target.
Japan’s Yu Kobayahsi had no less than three headed opportunities to break the deadlock in the first half, but failed to hit the target with any of them, while China’s only effort was a horribly scuffed Wei Shihao volley which ended up trickling out for a throw-in.
China were just about holding their own defensively, but were offering nothing going forward and so it was no surprise that Lippi made changes at half-time. Centre-forward Xiao Zhi was replaced by Zhang Wenzhao after a quiet first half and centre-back Gao Zhunyi, who had looked increasingly ropey as the interval approached, made way for Shanghai SIPG’s He Guan.
He Guan offered little additional stability to the back line, but Zhang’s addition to the right-wing with Yu Dabao moving to centre-forward greatly improved China’s attack and eventually led to the game’s first shot on target after 57 minutes. Zhang linked up well with right wing-back Fu Huan throughout the second half and on this occasion an exchange of passes between the two allowed Zhang to feed a perfectly weighted throughball into Yu Dabao. The Beijing Guo’an hitman found himself one on one with Masaaki Higashiguchi but blew the chance by striking the ball straight at the Japanese goalkeeper.
Within a minute, Fu Huan had squared the ball to Shanghai SIPG teammate Wei Shihao, but the 22-year-old again failed to show the required composure when he blasted the ball clean over the bar. Around 6 minutes later, China goalkeeper Wang Dalei was called into action for the first time when he had to back-pedal and catch a deflected shot from Yosuke Ideguchi and, shortly after that, a low driven cross from Naomichi Ueda slotted perfectly between Wang and the Chinese back line, but no Japanese player was on hand to turn it in.
On 71 minutes, Fu Huan and Zhang Wenzhao once again linked up to create a chance for Yu Dabao, but the cross was at an awkard height, meaning the 29-year-old couldn’t place his volley anywhere near on target. Until their late penalty, that was the last time a tiring China side really threatened and it looked as though they would be able to hold out for a point until some sloppy defending allowed substitute Kengo Kawamata to squeeze the ball through to Yu Kobayashi. Wang Dalei did well to initially get down to the ball ahead of the Kawasaki Frontale forward, but he was only able to nudge it wide which allowed the Japanese number 11 to finish off from a tight angle at the second time of asking.
The goal seemed to suck the life out of an already heavy-legged China team and that was evident just minutes later when Japan captain Gen Shoji picked up an errant clearance about ten yards inside China’s half and was given ample time to stroll forwards and lob Wang with a wickedly swerving thunderbolt. The Shandong Luneng goalkeeper was not more than three or four yards off his line, but the shot’s pace and outswing meant he was left flapping at air as Japan’s players celebrated a certain victory.
There was still time for Zhang Wenzhao to cap an impressive half of football by winning a penalty after a surging run into the Japanese penalty area but, by the time Yu Dabao had placed the ball on the spot and fired home, there was no room for China find an equaliser and secure their second 2-2 draw in as many games. The result means that China can no longer win the four team round-robin tournament, but they could still secure second if the defeat North Korea on Saturday afternoon and South Korea lose to Japan later in the evening.
The result may have been a disappointment, but the performance of this young, inexperienced team offers some cause for optimism moving forward. Fu Huan, Zhao Yuhao and and under-23 Liu Yiming all did well in their respective roles of right wing-back, defensive midfield and centre back. The former had a particularly good second half which, coupled with Deng Hanwen’s impressive display in the first game against South Korea, shows that particular position is one China don’t have to worry about too much in future years.
Zhang Wenzhao, a surprise call-up given that he is now 30-years-old and rarely gets a chance to play for Guangzhou Evergrande, was the best player on the pitch in the second half and has already done more than enough to justify what seemed to be a strange inclusion.
Among the other under-23 players, there will be concerns about Gao Zhunyi who looked out of his depth at centre-back for the second game in a row and Wei Shihao, who followed up his goal scoring debut on Saturday with a poor performance this evening featuring some comically poor shooting. Midfielder He Chao does the basics well, but not much more than that and has shown across these two games a dangerous habit of napping on the ball and getting dispossessed in risky areas.
Meanwhile, the performance of Wang Dalei may also raise questions about his international future. Only called into action to make one save before before conceding the two late goals, criticism could be levelled at him for conceding both times. In fact, while he could have done better for both goals, neither was a horrendous mistake. However, with Yan Junling shining in the first game and Zeng Cheng still Lippi’s first choice, Wang’s international prospects, which looked so promising after the 2015 Asian Cup, could be limited moving forward.
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