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EAFF E-1 Preview: South Korea vs China

South Korea began their defense of the East Asian Cup with a 2-0 win over Hong Kong thanks to goals from Hwang In-beom and Na Sang-ho in an almost empty Busan Asiad Stadium. Their next opponents, China, lost their opener 2-1 to Japan. K League United’s national team correspondent Steve Price (with help from Matt Binns) spoke to Jonathan White from the South China Morning Post.
(Image via EAFF)

Steve Price Asks, Jonathan White Answers

Steve Price: The Chinese national team often comes with an air of mystery from the outside looking in, whether it is newly naturalised players or managerial “rotation”. Where do you believe are China currently based on recent form?

Jonathan White: China are where they always are. They should be too good for most of the teams they play (Guam and the Maldives) but then they struggle against stronger teams (Syria again most recently) and throw up bizarre results (the 0-0 with the Philippines) against teams that they historically beat. It's as bizarre off the pitch. Lippi has walked away for the second time in a year and Cannavaro lasted two games so now they are managerless once more.

SP: As touched on, Marcello Lippi has left after recent 2-1 defeat to Syria in World Cup qualifying. With that mind, is there any idea of what we can expect from this Chinese side based on his replacement and the squad selected?

JW: Former Everton favourite Li Tie has been brought in for the EAFF and he has impressed at Wuhan Zall this season where he took the newly-promoted side to sixth in the CSL. He's been given a slightly undercooked squad to take to South Korea. The big names are absent so there's no Elkeson or Wu Lei, in part because the A team "need a rest" after the CSL season as was planned and partly because it's not a proper international break so struggling Espanyol are not going to let Wu leave. There are some biggish names in there with Shanghai SIPG's Cai Huikang among the biggest and with the physique to match.

SP: Looking at the squad selected, what would you say the strengths are in this Chinese side?

JW: Experience. This is not a "young" team despite missing some of the starrier names, it's maybe three-quarter strength. Wei Shihao is one of the younger players but he has just won the league with Guanghzou Evergrande while most of them are seasoned internationals and CSL veterans. That should count against a young Japan and South Korea, never mind Hong Kong.

SP: And on the flip side of this, where could the opposition in this tournament find some joy?

JW: Another coach, a new set of players. That lack of consistency and what Li wants the side to play like are where there could be problems for China. This is arguably his job interview to replace Lippi so he will be eager to impress but hopefully he doesn't try to change too much too soon.

SP: For the neutral, who are the key talents to look out for in this squad and why?

JW: Wei Shihao is the obvious one. He's already played for Guangzhou Evergrande, Beijing Guoan and Shanghai SIPG so the talent has always been there but he applied it this season. Good enough to go and play in Europe and at 24 he might get the opportunity. Plus, he's got a bit of a maverick streak. He got sent off for the national team in the China Cup and later received a ban from his club for that. He also had dreadlocks earlier this season.

SP: Jiang Zhipeng did a particularly bad tackle against Japan and was reportedly praised a lot for it by Chinese fans. Can we expect many similar 'tackles' in this match?

JW: I have not seen anything like praise for it, with many comments that say he should have apologized.
I also saw him offer a rather ridiculous explanation that he got the ball first and then the victim's head then hit his boot. No mention that his boot was nearly six foot off the ground and no apology.
To be honest that was just the most visually arresting of the Chinese challenges with a couple of other Japanese lads getting rough treatment so it looks like getting stuck in might be a feature of this team this week. Certainly fans and the media want the team to show some fight. Ideally whoever refs the game can remember to bring their red card with them and pull it out if there's anything too untoward.

SP: Finally, to put you on the spot, how do you see China faring in this competition? 

JW: I reckon they will win two out of three games. One of them will be against Hong Kong.

Jonathan White Asks, Steve Price Answers

Jonathan White: Will anyone turn up to watch the EAFF?

Steve Price: Nobody has watched it so far, but the attendances should be a bit better for this match as it is at the weekend, and for the final match as it is against Japan. The stadium certainly won’t be close to a sellout like it was when Korea played Australia in Busan last summer though. The cold weather is a large part of that. Ahead of the last World Cup, Korea played Colombia in Suwon in the late autumn and there were plenty of empty seats. 7:30 kickoffs are also hard to get to for anyone who doesn't work near the stadium. Another big reason is the lack of star names in the Korea team. Maybe Paulo Bento should have picked Lee Seung-woo, who can’t get a game with Sint-Truiden in Belgium at the moment, just to get some bums on seats.

JW: What is the target for South Korea at the tournament?

SP: After no goals and no wins in their last three games before this tournament, some good results are needed to stop that blip becoming a full-on slump. Even though those last three results were more of a disappointment than a disaster, with such a long time between matches, a few bad results can quickly turn public opinion against an international manager. Its also been a long time since Korea have put on a thrilling performance so it would be nice to see one here, but with the players available, that’s not likely.

JW: What kind of team are they putting out? What are the strengths and weaknesses of the squad?

SP: Korea’s defense and goalkeepers are the first choice ones for the national team and Kim Min-jae must be a contender for the best centerback on the continent. Unfortunately, the offensive half of the team looks about as blunt as a slice of bread. All the top Korean forwards play in Europe, so there’s no Son Heung-min, Hwang Hee-chan etc. The second choice forward line, players like Kim Shin-wook and Nam Tae-hee are also either injured or at the Club World Cup, and the best young attackers like Oh Se-hun are with the Under-22s, so this is a team with a first-choice defense and a third-choice attack. Paulo Bento’s options aren’t helped by how most K League coaches choose a large foreign striker to lead the line, and a few skillful foreign attacking midfielders behind him, limiting the number of Koreans in these positions that Bento can pick from to begin with. The bright spark of this team is Vancouver Whitecaps midfielder Hwang In-beom, who scored a fantastic free kick against Hong Kong and is destined for big things in the future.

JW: How will the loss of striker Kim Seung-dae with a broken rib affect them? Don't they now have just one striker left?

SP: Yeah, they look so short up-front its unbelievable. Lee Jeong-hyup is the only out-and-out striker Korea have. He was the target of fans frustrations under Uli Stielike but has also been in the full squad now and then under Bento. Fans can’t really moan about Bento playing him now though because he is pretty much the only choice for striker left in this tournament.

JW: Korea laboured to a win over Hong Kong will they look more fluid as the tournament goes on?

SP: Perhaps. The attacking half of the team didn’t have much experience playing together before the Hong Kong match so hopefully, they’ll gel as time goes on. Also, China and Japan are not likely to play quite as deep and defensive as Hong Kong so there might be a bit more room for Korea’s pacy dribblers like Moon Seon-min to exploit. The Hong Kong match was the sort of game where usually Korea use Kim Shin-wook as a battering ram to force themselves into the lead, but with him not available, they lacked any sort of alternative plan and Bento’s training sessions were probably aimed at just trying to get the attacking players functioning as a unit for Plan A given their lack of playing time together.

JW: Where do you see them finishing?

SP: I think they’ll finish second as I don’t see them winning all three games, and they will likely not have a good enough goal difference to win the tournament with less than nine points.

South Korea vs China kicks off at 19:30 on Sunday at the Busan Asiad Stadium

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