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It's do or Thai for threadbare Team China

Ivankovic's men confident, despite key absences

By SUN XIAOCHEN | China Daily | Updated: 2024-05-30 08:57
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China's Ai Kesen (center) and teammates share a light moment during a training session at the Shenyang Olympic Sports Center. China plays Thailand on June 6 in a crucial World Cup Asian qualifier, with the winner most likely to progress to the next round. ZHANG WENKUI/FOR CHINA DAILY

Short-handed, but uncompromising in its goal — Team China is approaching its 2026 World Cup qualifier against Thailand as a must-win battle, with hopes of advancing hanging by a thread.

With key starters suspended and several attackers still nursing injuries, the Chinese men's national team, coached by Croatian manager Branko Ivankovic, is apparently not at full strength, with just a week to go before it's due to host Thailand in Shenyang, Liaoning province, in a high-stakes Asian zone qualifier for the 2026 FIFA flagship tournament.

Despite defeating Thailand 2-1 in Bangkok in its first Group C fixture in November, on June 6, Team China faces its South East Asian neighbor in a do-or-die fixture that will almost certainly see the loser knocked out of the continental qualifiers with just one more group match to go.

Currently second behind group leader South Korea, Team China can only secure a top-2 finish to advance into the next qualifying phase with a home win over third-placed Thailand, while the emerging Thai squad expects to even the current 3-point gap with China in Shenyang, before clinching a runner-up finish by beating bottom-placed Singapore at home on June 11.

Anything other than 3 points against Thailand will jeopardize China's qualifying hopes, as it is scheduled to challenge the mighty South Korea, FIFA's 23rd-ranked national side, in its final Group C battle in Seoul five days after hosting Thailand.

The beleaguered Chinese men's team, which has failed to qualify for the last five World Cup finals — with its sole appearance in 2002 — is also battling against a lack of firepower, with its leading scorer Wu Lei suspended for aggregated yellow cards, and the striking duo of Zhang Yuning and Lin Liangming still not fully recovered from their respective injuries.

The absence of defending midfielder Li Yuanyi, due to an additional suspension by FIFA for his red-card foul in China's 4-1 home rout of Singapore on March 26 will surely be felt, given Thailand's fast-paced counterattack is expected to threaten the host, which needs nine new call-ups to Ivankovic's training camp to develop instant chemistry with the threadbare squad.

"We'll do our best with whatever we have, and our only goal is to secure a win," Ivankovic, who took over Team China in February, said through an interpreter after an opening training session at Shenyang Olympic Sports Center on Monday.

"The difficulties we face with injuries and suspensions cannot be used as an excuse. We must make the most of the players we have available," said Ivankovic, who led Team China to a 2-2 draw away in Singapore on March 21 in his first official game in charge.

"Thailand is a team with a distinctive style. We have analyzed its recent matches, against South Korea and us. We will play with a more aggressive offensive approach," said the 70-year-old Croatian, a former national team coach of Iran and Oman.

Since taking the reins from Team China's former manager Aleksandar Jankovic, Ivankovic, who also coached Chinese Super League club Shandong Taishan to a domestic title in 2010, 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 has served China well, at least in its doubleheader against Singapore, highlighted by Wu's brace in the home leg that helped the ex-Espanyol forward top the Asian zone qualifiers' scoring list with five goals in four matches, tied with Korean star Son Heung-min, Japan's Ayase Ueda and Almoez Ali of Qatar.

Wu's service will surely be missed, but Ivankovic has a slightly younger, and perhaps hungrier, alternative in CSL club Chengdu Rongcheng's red-hot striker Wei Shihao, who has scored four goals in Chengdu's last three league matches.

Wei, who honed his game in Portugal's top league from 2014-17, said his recent domestic duty, despite being physically challenging with six games played in the last four weeks, has helped maintain a momentum that bodes well for next week's international fixture.

"It's been a really exhausting couple of months. We've played many matches and are physically very tired," said the 29-year-old winger.

"But, on the other hand, playing regularly has kept me in good form lately. If I get the opportunity to play, I will try to score as many goals as possible to help the team beat Thailand."

Standing alongside Wei will be a trio of naturalized Brazilian-born veterans, who have earned their places back on the Chinese national program after falling out of favor with former national team coach Li Tie during the 2022 World Cup qualifying campaign.

"It won't be an easy game whatsoever. We need everyone to step up and bring out the best in other," said Alan, a 34-year-old center forward who now plays for Qingdao West Coast in the CSL.

"We need a high-quality performance and we need a win. We are confident of delivering on the expectations," said the former Brazilian under-20 squad member, who acquired Chinese citizenship in order to represent the country in 2019.

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