What we learned from China's winning start to 2026 World Cup qualifier
en.hangzhou.com.cn   2023-11-17 15:11   Source: CGTN

It may not have been a performance that instilled fear within the South Koreans, whom China is set to host in Shenzhen next week. But it was a promising start to their World Cup qualifying campaign, one that would have undeniably boosted the fragile self-esteem of the players in Aleksandar Jankovic's squad, who have faced their fair share of criticism.

On Thursday night, amid the deafening cheers of an exuberant home crowd, Sarach Yooyen handed Thailand a well-deserved lead after a blistering counter attack, but China swiftly responded with great flair as the former Espanyol striker Wu Lei notched an equalizer. The turnaround was then completed in the second half by substitute Wang Shangyuan, who collected Xie Pengfei's chipped cross to head home the winner.

The impressive Thai players also had their moments, not to mention the numerous gilt-edged opportunities squandered by their forwards. Without a doubt, there would be much for Jankovic to ponder upon as the final whistle resounded.

China need to step up their game

In light of the expansion of the 2026 World Cup to accommodate 48 teams, Asia will be granted eight direct qualification spots, thus presenting a golden chance for nations like China to finally realize their long-held dreams. While South Korea are anticipated to assert their dominance within this group, the clash between China and Thailand held the potential to be a crucial encounter, as it would materially shape the trajectory of their World Cup aspirations.

The form of Thailand in recent times has been rather inconsistent. Alexandre Polking's side suffered a humiliating 8-0 defeat at the hands of Georgia in a friendly match just last month, before salvaging a 1-1 draw against Estonia. However, on Thursday night, China's display against Thailand made them appear stronger than they truly were, particularly since Thailand were missing their standout midfielder Thitiphan Puangchan. Aside from the occasional moments of brilliance, China struggled to find a breakthrough against a resolute Thai side. As the game progressed, the home side grew increasingly emboldened and optimistic.

The issue lies in the fact that, despite having a well-organized defense featuring competent players like Jiang Shenglong and Zhu Chenjie, there is always a lingering sense that a mistake may occur or a speculative shot may find its way into the net for China. Such vulnerabilities do not bode well for them, especially when they come face-to-face with a formidable powerhouse like South Korea. 

Wei Shihao looked at home on big stage

The oft-criticized Wei Shihao, who had drawn considerable flak for his struggles in managing his emotions during the Chinese Super League and the Asian Champions League, was entrusted with a spot in the starting lineup by Jankovic. Remarkably, he rose to the occasion and did not disappoint. Despite his reputation for a fiery temperament, the 28-year-old talisman from Wuhan Three Towns exuded an aura of extraordinary composure and confidence, appearing completely at ease on the grandest stage of Asian football.

Wei initiated the move for China's equalizer with a masterfully executed pass and continued to pose a significant threat to Thailand's seasoned defenders throughout the tie. It was not only his technical prowess that caught the eye, but also his tireless work rate. He seemed to be omnipresent on the pitch, effortlessly maneuvering past midfielders one moment and delivering crunching tackles to opposing wingers the next. His versatility was on full display as he seamlessly transitioned from setting up scoring opportunities for Wu to tracking back and thwarting a late Thailand chance in his own half. A truly complete performance, which stood out as one of the finest displays on the opening day of the World Cup qualifiers.

Tan Long's lackluster form continues

The debate surrounding Tan Long persists as the towering striker's struggles in the national team continue. The veteran appeared lackluster and devoid of energy, failing to effectively execute the high press strategy that China sought to implement. His limited contribution especially in the first half was cause for concern. Moreover, his lack of pace was matched by a timid aerial presence, as Thai defenders easily overpowered him whenever China resorted to launching long balls.

It is undeniable that Tan demonstrated admirable professionalism as he tirelessly dedicated himself to the team's cause, covering vast distances on the pitch on Thursday. But the prevailing impression remains that he has lost the spark that once defined his play, particularly on the international stage.

Unlike China's record goal-scorer Wu, who seems to gain pace with each passing year, Tan's advancing age of 35 has seemingly taken a toll on his agility and energy levels. With his waning ability to pose a genuine threat to the opposition's goal, it becomes questionable whether he should retain his place in the team. Jankovic, who values Tan's industriousness, faces a challenging decision ahead of the crucial clash against South Korea.

Author:   Editor: Ye Lijiao