In Australia’s first of ten 3rd Round qualifying matches, they will come up against a formidable Chinese outfit in a ‘home’ match in Doha.
The ‘Dragon’s Team’ were in sparkling form during the 2nd Round of qualifying, finishing just two points behind Syria to advance into the 3rd round with 6 wins, 1 draw and 1 loss.
Most interestingly, the only teams who scored more than China’s 30 goals in the 2nd round of qualifying were the top two teams in Asia, Iran and Japan who scored 34 and 46 goals respectively.
The September 2nd encounter will prove to be a stern test for the Socceroos as they look to kick-off their World Cup tilt in style.
Wu Lei (RCD Espanyol, Spain)
Widely recognised as China’s best ever footballing product, Wu Lei is a seasoned professional with a phenomenal scoring record in China. The 29-year-old has scored 23 goals in 71 matches for the national team and is the 2nd all time goalscorer in the Chinese Super League (CSL).
A-League fans may be familiar with Lei from his time at Shanghai Port, the Chinese powerhouse that is now home to Socceroo Aaron Mooy and is the club where Lei holds the all-time goalscoring record with 169 goals.
Having made his professional debut in the CSL at the age of just 14 years old, the dynamic forward spent 14 years at the Chinese club before testing himself in Europe with Catalan outfit Espanyol. Lei has now racked up over 100 appearances in Spain and has tested himself in La Liga against some of the best players in the world including Lionel Messi, Toni Kroos and Sergio Ramos.
Lei is a dynamic and versatile attacker who can operate in any of the front 4 positions but prefers playing from the left where he can cut in on his right foot and shoot from distance and from inside the penalty area. Lei could also play as a striker if need be and is familiar in this role given that he was the 3rd leading scorer with 8 goals during the 2nd round of qualifying.
Ai Kesen (Elkeson) (Guangzhou FC, China)
A naturalised Brazilian, Elkeson is likely to lead the line for China as he makes his 8th performance for the country of which he is now a citizen.
After having crafted a solid career in Brazil for Rio-based Botafogo, Elkeson sought new challenges in China and kickstarted his career for Guangzhou Evergrande with 66 goals in his first two seasons while playing both off the left and as a traditional number 9.
His performances caught the eye of rivals Shanghai Port who then forked out an astronomical €18.5m (29.9m AUD) for his services. Whilst failing to hit the heights of his tenure at Evergrande which saw him win three league titles and two Asian Champions League crowns, the Brazilian born marksman managed to lead Shanghai to a CSL title in 2018.
Now plying his trade again for Guangzhou, Elkeson leads all players in the CSL for goals this season with 11 and recently scored a hat trick against Qingdao FC in a 5-0 victory for the Chinese powerhouse. Sitting two goals ahead of former Manchester United and Everton midfielder Marouane Fellaini, Elkeson will likely prove a handful for Australia’s defence with his pace and power difficult for anybody to handle.
Earning himself a reported €10m (16.2m AUD) per season in China, Elkeson is likely to start up top alongside Wu Lei and will look to continue his sparkling scoring form against the Socceroos.
Tyias Browning (Guangzhou FC, China)
Yet another naturalised player, Browning was born in Liverpool and spent 16 years with local outfit Everton having joined the club as a 10-year-old. Despite featuring for England’s youth teams, Browning was never able to truly cement himself as a Premier League player with the Merseyside outfit after registering just seven Premier League appearances.
After an impressive stint on loan at Sunderland in the Championship during 2017/18, Browning spent another season in Everton’s youth team before deciding to alter his career trajectory by moving to China. Seeking to pay homage to his family’s heritage (Browning has a Chinese grandfather), the Everton youth product sought to establish himself in China so he could play for the Chinese national team.
Browning made his China debut during the 2nd round of qualifying and started 3 of the 4 most recent matches, conceding just one goal. He has also been a permanent fixture at the heart of Guangzhou’s defence as they seek to win their 9th CSL crown in the last 17 years.
Browning has gone from strength to strength under the tutelage of Italian Ballon D’Or winning defender Fabio Cannavaro who is now the manager of Guangzhou. The Liverpool-born 27-year-old has a unique mixture of speed and intelligence as he has often been deployed in a sweeper position in a back 3 for Cannavaro’s Guangzhou.
How will they line up?
Tie Li has opted for variations of a 4-4-2 during recent World Cup qualifying matches. This formation allows the manager to deploy his wealth of attacking talent which includes the aforementioned Wu Lei and Elkeson as well as fellow naturalised Brazilian Alan Carvalho and Beijing Guoan teammate Zhang Yuning who plied his trade for Vitesse and ADO Den Haag in Holland’s Eredivisie before returning to China.
This system allows China to harness the individual brilliance of their attacking talent which largely makes up for the team’s lack of overseas experience in midfield.
In their most recent game against Syria (an opposition with whom Australians should be familiar after 2017’s WCQs), China emerged as 3-1 victors as Tie Li opted for a 4-4-2 diamond with Elkeson and Lei up top with Beijing Guoan’s Xizhe Zhang as the number 10 and veteran Xi Wu at the base of midfield.
Xi Wu is an important player for the national team and captained his country to victory during the recent qualifiers. The holding midfielder has forged a formidable career in China for multiple teams and will be a key asset of the team that will look to qualify China for their first World Cup since 2002.
Ranked 71st in the world and 9th in the Asian confederation, China will provide an entirely new challenge for the Socceroos in the 3rd round of qualifying. They will employ an attacking style of play aimed at forcing 1v1s with Australia’s defenders.
The September 2nd encounter could very well prove to be a decisive match in the context of the group should Australia qualify for the 2022 FIFA World Cup in Qatar.
China certainly should not be taken lightly as they vie for a crucial top 2 spot in the group where just two of Australia, Japan, China and Saudi Arabia are guaranteed qualification to the most coveted event in world sport.
Probable Lineup (4-4-2)
J. Yan; L. Zhang, Browning, D. Yu, S. Wang; L. Wu, J. Hao, X. Wu, Elkeson; A. Carvalho, Y. Zhang
Australia take on China tomorrow at 4am AEST