Marcelo Lippi’s China take on their toughest test of their Asian Cup 2019 campaign so far as they look to retain top spot in Group C by claiming a positive result against Korea.
Lippi, whose home town in Italy is famed for its festival of papier mache floats, will hope his side can sculpt another victory after a much-improved performance saw Wu Lei net two firecrackers in a 3-0 win over the Philippines.
The undoubted talisman of an ageing eleven, Wu Lei may have gained confidence monitoring Korea’s start to the Asian Cup. While rarely troubled at the back, the Taeguk Warriors have been left wanting in front of goal and allowed both the Philippines and Kyrgyzstan a sniff of a reprieve. Should Korea again falter in the final third, Shanghai SIPG’s star man may have the quality that others lacked to punish Paulo Bento’s side. Confidence for China will be tempered however, when you factor in the arrival of one of the continent’s leading lights Son Heung-min, who is available for selection fresh from Tottenham’s Premier League encounter with Manchester United.
While the result of this match will have no bearing on both sides progression, it could pave an easier path through to the latter stages for the winner. Those who finish at the summit of Group C go on to face one of the lucky losers from Group A, B or F, while the runners-up face their second-place counterparts from a competitive Group A.
With both sides enjoying consecutive wins in the competition, China boast the advantage heading into their first meeting for over 12 months, knowing that a draw would see them top the group. Keeping their first clean sheet in five in a dominant performance against the Philippines, Lippi will hope some of the gaps evident in the opening game against Kyrgyzstan have been plugged while Hao Junmin’s three assists perhaps went under the radar thanks to Wu Lei’s wonder strike. Ecstatic with his side’s performance against Sven Goran Eriksson’s Philippines, Lippi gleefully stated to the media that his side can go all the way should they replicate that performance. Enthused by their “aggressive” display, Lippi declared himself proud of the determination and concentration shown, traits needed in abundance should they be able to overcome tournament favourites Korea.
In the opposition camp, Portuguese boss Paulo Bento has enjoyed a prolonged honeymoon period since taking over following Korea’s Asian Games success in the summer. Adopting an attacking style rarely seen under predecessors Uli Stielike and Shin Tae-yong, Bento has won praise for seamlessly accommodating those who impressed in Indonesia’s Games into the first team squad. Unbeaten in nine since taking charge, Bento has handed starts to a trio of 22-year-olds in Kim Min-jae, Hwang In-beom and Hwang Hee-chan, while young talents from Korea’s second division such as Kim Moon-hwan and Na Sang-ho were named in the squad. While Ki Sung-yeung is afforded more time to recover from a hamstring strain, Jung Woo-young will be relied upon to marshal what could be an inexperienced midfield selection.
While much attention is likely to centre on Son Heung-min’s introduction, improvement is needed from those who act as an under-study to Korea’s talisman. Lee Jae-sung, Hwang Hee-chan and Hwang Ui-jo frustrated their management team and fans alike by spurning gilt-edged opportunities in a similar vein to the lack of clinical finishing that has brought about unnecessarily nervy moments. When on their game though, Korea have shown glimpses of what makes them so highly fancied to win a first Asian Cup since 1960 and Bento has insisted than Son’s arrival in the UAE will not encourage any wavering from their front-footed approach.
For China to be capable of pulling off an upset on Wednesday evening and reignite faint hopes of a first Asian Cup final appearance since 2004, their best option may be to stick with a winning team and hope to carry momentum into the knockout stages.
The expected absence of Lee Yong at right back could also play into China’s hands, especially considering success of balls coming into the box from wide areas against the Philippines. Yu Dabao has also enjoyed recent success in this fixture and will look for a third consecutive goal against Korea after equalizing late on in a 2-2 in Tokyo in December 2017.
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