It’s long been said that China is the sleeping giant of football, not just in Asia but globally as well. After qualifying for their first AFC Asian Cup quarterfinals in three tournaments, are we witnessing the first signs that this giant is about to awaken?
While we have to be careful not to get too ahead of ourselves, the early signs from their opening two matches at the Asian Cup are promising. Alain Perrin’s appointment was treated with much scepticism, yet the former Lyon manager has started to prove a few doubters wrong.
Perrin took over just days before China’s final Asian Cup qualifier against Iraq, a match they lost 3-1. But that one goal was enough to see them qualify. Such was the state of the national team that so little was expected.
In the 15 matches since then China have tasted defeat only once, a shock loss at home to unfancied Mali. They’re unbeaten in their last 12, with eight wins and four draws. After Qatar’s loss to UAE in their opening match, China are now the most in-form nation in Asia.
Perrin deserves a lot of credit for transforming the side in the 10 months he has been in charge, while at the same time getting results and building a functional team. Only three members of the XI that started against Iraq remain and the average age of the squad has dropped from 27 to 25.
In their squad for this tournament are 11 players with less than 20 international caps, while the average is just 26. This is a side not only for the here and now, but one that can take China through the upcoming World Cup qualifying campaign.
The common, and often lazy, belief is that China’s national team is built on the back of the success of Guangzhou Evergrande, a team many view as a pseudo-national team. While Evergrande are heavily represented in the 23-man squad (seven players), we hear less about the similar representation of Jiangsu Sainty players (six).
In fact, both goal scorers against Uzbekistan (Wu Xi and Sun Ke) play domestically for Jiangsu Sainty, and seven of the eleven who started against Uzbekistan play for clubs other than Guangzhou Evergrande.
It’s no surprise that Jiangsu is supplying the national team with good, quality young players either.
Their manager, Gao Hongbo, was in charge of the Chinese national team from 2009 until early 2011, and was undertaking a rejuvenation himself before he was bumped for high-profile Spaniard Jose Antonio Camacho. The European proved a dismal failure and halted the progress that was being made under Hongbo.
But aside from the statistics, it is the manner of their play that has proven most pleasing so far. While they might not have a genuine, prolific goal scorer in their midst, they have plenty of attacking talent and Perrin has them organised and structured, yet playing with a freedom that allows their natural talent to shine through.
While they scored twice last night, they looked capable of scoring more, and that’s not always something one can say about the Chinese team.
Together with that, there is a resilience in this side that has not always been there. In the final 10 minutes when Uzbekistan were pressing for an equaliser, the defence stood tall and repelled attack after attack, with Zhang Linpeng and Ren Hang both making crucial interceptions in the dying stages. In years past they would have wilted and conceded a soft equaliser.
In their current run of 12 unbeaten they’ve conceded just six goals and kept six clean sheets. They haven’t conceded more than one goal since the 1-3 loss to Mali. In their 12 games before their unbeaten streak, China conceded 14 goals and conceded three goals on four occasions.
It’s common logic that if you can stop the opposition from scoring you’ve won half the battle.
The battle for China now is not to become complacent. While they have exceeded the expectations of many so far, bigger tests lie ahead – a quarterfinal match against either Korea Republic or Australia will provide a stronger test. The ultimate examination, however, will come when World Cup qualifying begins.
The alarm clock is going off, and now we must wait to see whether or not the giant will wake up.