Wings clipped: Why China’s home bird goalkeepers could be holding back the national team’s World Cup dream
China has depth in its goalkeeping ranks but to take the next step and fulfill an elite league destiny, they need to be exposed to better football abroad
By now, everyone knows that the implausible sums recently poured into Chinese football are part of president Xi’s plan to improve the nation’s desperate footballing fortunes with an eye on one thing, lifting the World Cup.
The national team was left with, at best, a mathematical chance of edging closer to Russia 2018 following the pair of black eyes it received from little brother in what were supposed to be a qualifying toy fights. But they can move two steps closer to that dream with games against the Maldives and Qatar during the Chinese Super League’s current international break.
The last action before China’s clubs took a week off was for the CSL’s representatives to play in the AFC Champions League.
It was a mixed bag of results for them as the group stage reached the halfway stage and it was their goalkeepers that came under scrutiny.
China and Guanghzou Evergrande No 1 Zeng Cheng certainly had a week to forget. At 2-0, the keeper was under no pressure but punched a corner behind him for Muto Yaki to tap in on the line. Zeng then let in a last minute goal to squander two points, sprawled on the floor and leaving the holders bottom of their group.
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The nation’s first choice custodian is kept company by Wang Dalei and Yan Junling in interim manager Gao Hongbao’s China squad for this week’s qualifiers. His keeping compatriots also had mixed fortunes in their Champions League games.
Wang, a keeper that his coach at Shanghai Shenhua, former England international Ian Walker, said could one day play in the English Premier League, let in four goals. He was arguably at fault for all of them, finding himself in no man’s land, beaten at his near post, rooted to the spot and completely bypassed for the goals.
China goalkeeper Wang Dalei gets a helping hand from an Australian ball boy
Shanghai SIPG’s Yan Junling, who is now coached by Walker, had a better time of it in his side’s 2-1 win over Gamba Osaka. He made a fine double save following a header from a corner, although it’s unlikely he knew much about stopping the follow-up with his face, and was responsible for Osaka’s goal when he stuttered going for a cross and allowed a free header as he was shifting his weight.
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Interestingly, of the four Chinese goalkeepers in action in the continental competition it was the only one not in the current China squad that kept a clean sheet. Jiangsu Suning’s Zhang Sipeng – an ever present under Dan Petrescu this season – was left untroubled during their bore draw in Tokyo, although he did invite the home side’s best chance with a weak punch to the edge of his box from a cross.
The world laughed last year at Chongqing Lifan’s Sui Weijie letting in a goal while having a drink but goalkeepers are probably the pick of China’s players, and despite a bad week at the office, they are a key area in China’s potential qualification.
Sui Weijie concedes a goal while taking a water break
As Tim Cahill recently pointed out, the team struggles for goals: “The most difficult area for the Chinese national team is attacking, they can’t score goals.” The fact that no Chinese players were among the scorers on the CSL’s opening weekend did nothing to disprove the Australian’s view.
While high-profile strikers are being brought in, goalkeeping in the CSL is a closed shop and since 2001 the Chinese FA has ruled that all goalkeepers in the domestic top flight have had to be Chinese. Indeed, Hong Kong’s very own Yapp Hung-fai was a high-profile casualty of this ruling in 2013 when he was bizarrely denied the opportunity to sign for Guizhou Renhe.
They have benefitted from the last 15 years: Zeng was named as Chinese goalkeeper of the year for 2015 as he won a Champions League and CSL double, his third league title in a row; Wang, the more naturally talented of the pair, took the award the year before.
Shanghai SIPG’s Yan Junling makes a double save
If the CSL’s star foreign strikers perform then keepers will continue to improve, otherwise they should head overseas to become good enough to match Jiang Jin in keeping goal for China at a World Cup.
The Chinese owners of teams abroad could provide the nation’s goalkeepers a home.
If Walker is right that Wang is good enough to follow in his footsteps in the Premier League, then China might be able to make it through a qualifying campaign.
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Mind you, there’s only so much that a goalie can do. Keeping it goalless against Hong Kong over two games has effectively ended China’s chances of reaching Russia. They need get six points this week to stand a chance of finishing as one of the four best runners up and advancing to round three.
Beating the Maldives is a given but first-placed Qatar are another matter, China will need to keep it tight and snatch a goal from somewhere. What price a goalscoring goalkeeper?