SYDNEY (AFP) – China are hoping a young line-up and a new coach will bring a change of fortunes as they bid to reach the Asian Cup knockout stages for the first time in more than a decade.
The world’s most populous nation is one of football’s biggest under-achievers but recent success at club level provides a glimmer of hope for Alain Perrin’s side.
China, with a population of 1.3 billion and ever-expanding financial muscle, have mystifyingly stalled since reaching their first and only World Cup in 2002.
They came perilously close to missing their first Asian Cup in 11 editions, but scraped through on goal difference as the best-performing third-placed team in the qualifying groups.
However, Guangzhou Evergrande earned respect last year when they became China’s first winners of the AFC Champions League, shepherded by World Cup-winning coach Marcello Lippi.
Now Perrin, formerly of Lyon and Portsmouth, will try to steer China past the group stage for the first time since 2004, when they reached the final on home soil.
The 58-year-old Frenchman arrived in February at the helm of a side in flux after the sacking of expensively hired ex-Real Madrid and Spain boss Jose Antonio Camacho.
Perrin’s first competitive squad features seven players from Guangzhou Evergrande, including their captain and talisman Zheng Zhi, their only representative aged more than 30.
Striker Yang Xu was selected along with Gao Lin, whose goals helped Guangzhou win last year’s Champions League as well as a fourth straight domestic title this season.
Perrin’s first game in charge was China’s final qualifier, a 3-1 loss to Iraq in March when Zhang Xizhe’s second-half penalty was enough to see them squeak through on goal difference.
But China have lost only one of their 10 friendlies since, a 3-1 defeat to Mali, and have carved out wins against Macedonia, Kuwait, Paraguay and Thailand. Their task looks challenging but not insurmountable in Group B, where they will compete with Uzbekistan, three-time winners Saudi Arabia and North Korea for one of two quarter-final slots.
However, China’s exclusively home-based squad remain largely untested and 1-1 home draws against Jordan and New Zealand suggest they may struggle to break down solid opposition.
“We are not the favourite, we do not have the best chance,” Perrin said, when asked about China’s Asian Cup chances.
“What I know is that the players are ready to give the best they can… anything is possible.”