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East Asian Cup: South Korea vs China Writers' Chat

This year's East Asian Cup kicks off with South Korea against China. The last time these two teams met, China won one-nil in a hostile atmosphere in Changsha. South Korea looked lacklustre in that match, allegedly due to being sleep-deprived by noisy Chinese fans, and couldn't find a way past China's defence after Yu Dabao put the home team in front after 34 minutes. That result all but sealed Uli Stielike's fate as South Korea's head coach, but it wasn't enough to revive China's World Cup campaign.

To find out a bit more about the China team, K-League United's national team correspondent Steve Price talked to China football expert Richard Whiddington

Steve Asks, Richard Answers

Steve Price: What is the general view in China about Lippi staying on as head coach? 

Richard Whiddington: As stands, Marcello Lippi is set to remain as head coach until the end of the 2019 Asian Cup, however, there have been signs of his tenure being extended and this would be greeted extremely positively by the majority of Chinese fans. The improvement of the side under the Italian has been substantial and the hope will be that he can lay the foundations for the next generation of players.

SP: After beating Korea last time they played, will China approach this game expecting a result?  

RW: Probably not. The springtime win over South Korea in Changsha was undoubtedly the highlight of China’s topsy-turvy qualifying campaign and held both footballing and political significance. Yet, the two nations will likely approach the tournament differently with South Korea fine tuning for the summer of 2018 and China hoping to discover future first team players and perhaps build a little momentum. Having stuck with trusted veterans throughout qualifying, Lippi has promised to give experience to young players and so expectations are understandably modest.

SP: Are there any young stars in the team that we should look out for? 

RW: A depressingly difficult question to answer. In recent years, managerial conservatism in the Chinese Super League (CSL) has led to a shortage of young players getting playing experience and the U-23 rule introduced at the start of 2017 to address the issue failed. The average age of Lippi’s starting teams neared the 30-year-old mark and the only ‘young’ players in China’s recent friendlies against Serbia and Colombia, were Fu Huan and He Guan, are 24. In truth, there could well be a couple of breakout youngsters for China, time will tell.

SP: How seriously is China taking this tournament? Is it widely publicized?

RW: This hinges, to a certain extent, on how long Lippi plans to continue managing the national team. No doubt, the Italian and his extensive coaching team will be using the opportunity to pass on the tactical and organizations methods that served him well in qualifying to the next group of players.

The East Asian Cup has kept a relatively low profile, certainly in comparison to Winter Olympic coverage, yet this may more down to the focus on the recent final of the Chinese FA Cup than genuine disinterest.

SP: Which Chinese players should fans keep their eyes on during the tournament?

RW: There has been quite a lot of hype about an 18-year-old called Li Ruofan who got a little bit of action for Shanghai Shenhua at the end of the season. The attention has mainly been because he has jumped age groups which has generally happened with few Chinese players. However, how much game time he gets remains to be seen. More conservatively, Deng Hanwen, a 22 year-old defender who surprisingly spent last season in the Chinese second tier, continues to get backing from Lippi and already has five caps. Will hopefully build on his decent performances in friendlies across the past year.

Richard Asks, Steve Answers

Richard Whiddington: First off, what are the general feelings about South Korea’s World Cup draw?

Steve Price: Well, it goes without saying that it could've been better, but at least Korea aren't in the group with Spain and Portugal. Back in 2014, Korea had the easiest group in the tournament but still only got a single point, and that was partly down to an error by the Russian goalkeeper, whereas in 2010 they qualified from quite a tough group of Argentina, Greece, and Nigeria. If Korea play anything like they did in 2014, then it doesn't really matter who they play. They need to focus on themselves and go into the tournament on form to give themselves a chance.

RW: Shin Tae-yong took over mid-qualifying, what are the perceptions of him so far and how will approach he competition?

SP: He got the job done, just. Korea did play some good football in the second half of their match against Uzbekistan, but their 'attacking' play at home against a ten-man Iran was possibly the worst football I've seen all year, and I watch FC Seoul every week! Shin Tae-yong is seen a bit of an establishment 'yes man' in Korea, a kind of Korean Gareth Southgate, if you will. But so far he seems to be learning from his mistakes, like his failed experiment with 3-4-3, rather than stubbornly keeping doing things that don't work. He's got some great assistants in too in Toni Grande and Javier Minano who were part of Spain's massively successful coaching team.

RW: What are the concerns about South Korea’s squad in the run up to the World Cup? What questions do you hope the competition will answer and are there any players for whom the competition represents a ‘make or break’ situation?

SP: Given that most of the attacking talent is in Europe and therefore missing the tournament, I'd like to see Korea sort out their defence so that it is as solid as possible in the World Cup. It was shambolic in recent friendlies against Morocco and Russia, but looked pretty good in Shin Tae-yong's other games in charge of the national team. FC Seoul winger Yun Il-lok has been overlooked for the national team despite a strong season, but he is in the squad for this tournament, so for him it might be his best chance to impress Shin Tae-yong and become part of his World Cup plans. Jang Hyun-soo has finally been back playing regular football for FC Tokyo in the last few months of the season. His lack of football at Guangzhou R&F led to some poor performances for the national team. He has the captain's armband for this tournament, and some strong performances might help get the fans back on his side.

RW: I’ve noticed Kwon Chang-hoon has been performing well in Ligue 1 for Dijon, how has he fared for the national team so far and how does he fit into Shin’s system?

SP: When Kwon Chang-hoon was at Suwon, he looked a level above everyone else in the K-League. His touch is really good, but in his last season at Suwon, the team underperformed and there was possibly too much pressure on him to carry the team so he struggled a bit. He's really kicked on over at Dijon and will be a key player for the national team over the next World Cup cycle.

Korea take on China at 4:30 p.m. Saturday December 9th at the Ajinomoto Stadium in Tokyo. 

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