Fitness concerns force Marcello Lippi to juggle his China squad for Japan game after tough Chinese Super League season
Unlikely that all six of the players aged 22 or under will start in the second game of the East Asian Championship
Marcello Lippi is facing a challenge to select his best starting line-up for Tuesday evening’s East Asian Championship clash with Japan as the differing fitness levels of his players threaten to undermine his hopes of picking his strongest team.
China travelled to Tokyo for the tournament with a 23-man squad that features six players aged 22 or under after the Italian excluded many of his more experienced stars after a demanding season in the Chinese Super League.
But perhaps the biggest challenge for the World Cup-winning coach is managing the fitness of a side that features some who have not played since the final round of matches in the Chinese Super League at the start of November.
While others featured in the national team’s meetings with Colombia and Serbia in mid-November and those from Shanghai SIPG and Shanghai Shenhua played in the final of the Chinese FA Cup, the disparity in conditioning is forcing Lippi to juggle his squad.
The meeting with Japan comes just three days after the 2-2 draw with South Korea on Saturday and China will take to the field again on Saturday in the final round of the competition when they take on North Korea.
“Playing football is difficult and it’s something we have to take seriously,” said Lippi. “We have to think about each player’s condition and how that changes during the tournament.
“The Chinese Super League concluded on November 3 and quite a few of the players took a vacation for about a month until December 1, when the squad got together and started playing again.
“Some of the players were with the squad until November 15 (for the games against Serbia and Colombia) and made a good result but these players took a break for 10 days.
“That type of situation impacts on how the squad will play and that’s something we need to take seriously.”
Lippi started all six players eligible for next month’s AFC U-23 Championship in the opening game, with SIPG’s Wei Shihao scoring his first goal for China to give his side the lead.
The 22-year-old, who steadily improved throughout the Chinese Super League season after joining SIPG on loan from Portuguese side Leixoes, was withdrawn for tactical reasons at half-time, meaning he could feature again on Tuesday evening.
The likelihood of all six starting again is slim and Lippi is expected to make a number of changes, although Tianjin Quanjian’s Zhao Xuri should captain the team as he did on Saturday evening.
The former Guangzhou Evergrande midfielder wore the armband against South Korea despite Lippi’s earlier claims that honour would go to Yu Dabao, who scored the late goal that ensured China earned the draw with the Koreans.
“I made a mistake,” said Lippi. “To decide on the captaincy, we have to determine how many caps the player has and the contribution of the player and that’s how I determined who should be captain.
“When I announced that, I thought Yu had more caps than Zhao but Zhao has maybe 72 or 73 and I made a mistake in counting.”
Marcello Lippi says China are not trying to win East Asian Championship against Japan, South Korea and North Korea
Japan won their opening game of the competition on Saturday, with a fortunate 1-0 victory over the North Koreans coming via an injury time winner from Yosuke Ideguchi, and coach Vahid Halilhodzic has concerns over the quality of his squad.
The Japanese are missing all of their Europe-based players plus those from recently crowned Asian champions Urawa Red Diamonds, who are currently taking part at the Fifa Club World Cup.
Other key players, such as Cerezo Osaka’s Hotaru Yamaguchi, have been ruled out due to injury, leaving the Japanese with just two players – Yasuyuki Konno and Mu Kanazaki – with more than 10 international caps.
As a result, Japan laboured throughout their meeting with North Korea and Halilhodzic was left hoping for a better performance against China.
“I’m sure for the second match all the players will calm down and do better,” he said. “Unfortunately, there were players who couldn’t come because of injury and if we had these players without injuries we would be able to show better quality football.
“However, I don’t know if they could say they would play better than these players who played [against North Korea]. This tournament is a test for me to see as many players as possible before the World Cup.”
The day’s action will kick off at Ajinomoto Stadium when North Korea and South Korea face each other in a game that will attract attention due to the ongoing stand-off between the nations.
Both need to win after failing to pick up maximum points in the opening round of fixtures if they are to harbour hopes of claiming the title.