Seeds of growth as China claim historic win over South Korea, but too little too late for World Cup chances
Beijing Guoan striker Yu Dabao scores only goal in 2018 Fifa World Cup qualifier at He Long Stadium in Changsha
China claimed a historic win over South Korea in Thursday’s Russia 2018 qualifier, but while the seeds of growth and development under a World Cup-winning coach were plain to see, it is still probably too little too late.
Beijing Guoan striker Yu Dabao grabbed the only goal after 34 minutes of the group A qualifier amid high security at He Long Stadium in Changsha as China claimed only a second win in 32 meetings with the side currently ranked second in Asia behind Iran and first of the final round of qualifiers.
But if Marcello Lippi had been appointed before they had picked up just two points from their first five games in the qualifiers for Russia 2018, the result may have carried more meaning for China and their chances at securing only a second-ever appearance at the World Cup finals.
“This is a very important match. I am very grateful to the head coach for giving me this opportunity to play,” said Yu.
“I feel very excited now that we can win. We were a bit tense in the beginning because it was a very crucial match and we were under a lot of pressure, so we didn’t carry out the cooperation like we did in training, but we played better and better after scoring a goal.”
Instead, China head to the intimidating cauldron of the Azadi Stadium in Tehran to face Iran next week with their chances of at least securing a play-off place for Russia 2018 still a long way from certain with Lippi’s side indebted to goalkeeper Zeng Cheng for a string of key saves in the second half.
Watch: China 1 South Korea 0 highlights
“We are very glad that we got three points today and achieved our goal,” said China captain Zheng Zhi.
“I want to thank all my teammates for giving everything, and also thank the fans, the atmosphere was incredible and that helped a lot. This win gives us a lot of confidence to challenge Iran.”
The game kicked off in an electric atmosphere with tensions between the two nations high after South Korea agreed with the United States to deploy the Terminal High Altitude Area Defence (THAAD) anti-missile system in the country.
And China made an aggressive and encouraging start to the contest inside the opening 10 minutes against a visiting side containing only three players plying their trade in South Korea and two from teams in the Chinese Super League.
China’s team, in contrast, was made up entirely of domestic-based players, with Netherlands-based striker Zhang Yuning an option off the bench for coach Lippi.
The visiting defence continued to endure a busy start to the evening, with China focusing a lot of their attacks down their right, although they lacked quality in the final third and were caught offside several times with South Korea playing a high line under German coach Uli Stielike.
But it was China who created the first real chance after 29 minutes as Wu Lei fed Yu charging into the penalty area, only for the striker to fire disappointingly straight at South Korea goalkeeper Kwoun Sun-tae.
China were almost made to pay as South Korea charged to the other end of the field only for Qatar-based forward Nam Tae-hee to curl an effort from the edge of the area wide of the post.
But 11 minutes before half-time China opened the scoring as Yu darted to the front post to apply a glancing header to Wang Yongpo’s corner and the ball skidded off the damp surface and into the bottom corner past a static Kwoun.
The goal was only China’s third in six games in group A, with the other two coming in September’s 3-2 defeat by South Korea in Seoul.
Ji Dong-won went close for South Korea with a header just before half-time, but thankfully for China the effort looped over the goal with goalkeeper Zeng at full stretch.
China were seemingly dealt a blow at half-time as Shanghai SIPG midfielder Wu Lei was inexplicably replaced by Wu Xi, while South Korea introduced giant striker Kim Shin-wook in attack.
That led to a change in South Korea’s approach and the visitors began to enjoy more possession as the half progressed, with China goalkeeper Zeng at full stretch to palm away a deflected strike from Ki Sung-yeung a minute before the hour mark.
Ki again tested Zeng six minuets later, and with the game opening up, South Korea goalkeeper Kwoun then needed to be on his toes to keep out Wu Xi’s effort soon after.
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Zeng again maintained China’s slender lead with a superb save from Ji’s close range header inside the final 20 minutes of an enthralling contest.
China continued to ride their luck in the closing stages as Wu Xi was in the right place to clear Hong Jeong-ho’s header from a corner off the line at the near post.
Tensions threatened the boil over inside the final two minutes as South Korea substitute Hwang Hee-chan kicked out at a China player on the floor, but Lippi’s side were rewarded for a resolute defensive display as they secured a first win of the final round of qualifiers.
“They gave us a lot of trouble in the beginning of the second half as their long range shots were very intimidating, but our collective defence was fantastic,” said goalkeeper Zeng.