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Primed for high-stakes Tianjin test

By SUN XIAOCHEN | China Daily | Updated: 2024-03-26 09:57
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Forward Ai Kesen trains with Team China in Tianjin ahead of Tuesday's crucial World Cup qualifier against Singapore. Team China is in desperate need of a home victory after drawing the corresponding fixture in Singapore last Thursday. XINHUA

Team China is determined not to let last Thursday's frustrating draw with Singapore derail its World Cup qualifying hopes as it goes all-out for the three points in a must-win return leg this week.

After letting a two-goal lead slip against the lowest-ranked team in the group, the Chinese men's team is attempting to swiftly move on from that setback as it shapes up for a high-stakes Asian zone qualifier against Singapore in Tianjin on Tuesday.

Anything less than a win would leave Team China's chances of reaching the Asian zone's final qualifying round hanging by a thread. China currently sits third in Group C after three games behind leader South Korea and second-placed Thailand, with only the top two finishers directly progressing to the next phase.

"We're well used to being under pressure as players and coaches in this game, so we always need to deliver under pressure," said head coach Branko Ivankovic, who was appointed last month.

"We just need to charge ahead with a positive mindset and go all out to beat Singapore at home. Then we must try to beat Thailand again at home in the next qualifying window."

Since taking the Team China reins from Aleksandar Jankovic, the 70-year-old Ivankovic, a former national team coach of Iran and Oman, has repeatedly stressed his commitment to playing with more attacking flair, creativity and aggression — a philosophy that is now almost universally preferred by tacticians in the modern game.

The fresh approach served China well in the opening exchanges against Singapore last Thursday, with experienced striker Wu Lei scoring twice, even after missing a penalty, to earn his team a comfortable halftime lead.

However, as Team China's energy levels and defensive discipline wilted, the host took advantage of glaring errors at the back to grab second-half goals and dish out a painful lesson to Ivankovic and his team in the Croatian's first game at the helm.

The former coach of Chinese Super League club Shandong Taishan says he won't let those lapses deter him from his commitment to playing attacking soccer.

"We showed some promising momentum during the game and we also had some plays that we need to work on and improve," said Ivankovic, who led Shandong to a CSL title in 2010 during a 16-month stint with the club.

"We need our players to push up front aggressively which requires a lot in terms of conditioning and tactical discipline. We still need more drills and training (to get this right).

"We are not going to change things abruptly, though. We will keep working on improving and adapting to the new style."

Following a 10-day training camp ahead of the trip to Singapore, Ivankovic selected a mix of young talents, veterans and naturalized players on his 26-strong roster for the doubleheader against the Group C minnow.

Captain Zhang Linpeng was supposed to be a pillar of Ivankovic's rebuild, however a botched clearance by the long-serving defender gifted striker Jacob Mahler Singapore's 81st-minute equalizer following Faris Ramli's 54th-minute opener for the home side.

Zhang couldn't hide his disappointment when he spoke to reporters after the game, saying he had enough of his own mistakes due to his declining physical fitness, and as a result had decided to call time on his Team China career.

"I think it's about time to end my international career," said Zhang after earning his 105th cap for his country. "We couldn't even beat Singapore. I think it's unacceptable, and I find it humiliating."

However, after being talked around by Ivankovic, teammates and his family, Zhang reconsidered his position and is available for selection again on Tuesday.

The 34-year-old, a two-time winner of the AFC Champions League with Guangzhou Evergrande, said he will approach the remainder of China's qualifiers with sheer determination and focus.

"I still cherish each and every minute wearing the national team uniform and feel I am still responsible for the group as long as the national team needs me," he told China Central Television.

"Our chance to qualify for the 2026 World Cup is still alive. We need everyone to be on the same page, with total resolve to pull through.

"Hopefully we can unleash all of our strength with a home win on Tuesday to pay back the fans' support over the years."

Following the home game against Singapore, Team China will host Thailand on June 6 before a difficult away trip to face South Korea five days later to complete its second-round qualification program. The top two sides from each of the nine groups will advance to the final 18-team qualifying round for the 2026 World Cup finals, which will be hosted by the United States, Canada and Mexico.

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