A chance but not a good one

Updated: 2013-02-06 00:57

By TANG ZHE (China Daily)

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China's 2014 World Cup dream was extinguished long ago. Now the question has become whether the national team can secure a berth at the Asian Cup in Australia in 2015.

China will start its Asian Cup qualification with a road game against Saudi Arabia early on Thursday morning (1:15 am Beijing time) in Dammam, ending a year-long break from formal international matches after being knocked out of the World Cup preliminaries last February.

However, the squad is not exactly overflowing with optimism.

China, ranked sixth in Asia and 86th in the world by FIFA, suffered an embarrassing loss to Oman, ranked 108 in the world, in a friendly on Jan 30. First-choice centerback Feng Xiaoting strained his thigh during that game and will miss Thursday's encounter.

Chinese fans are not keen on the team's chances. In an online poll on sina.com, more than 70 percent of participants believed China's loss to Oman was a true indication of the side's ability - or lack thereof ― and more than 80 percent said China had no chance of defeating Saudi Arabia.

However, Saudi Arabia, a former West Asia powerhouse, is also struggling as it has slipped to 14th in the Asian rankings and 118th overall.

"Chinese and Saudi Arabian soccer have both suffered drastic declines over the past few years. The two sides are close in standard of play. We have the home advantage, but the key to this game will be the mental preparation side," sina.com quoted retired Saudi Arabian player Hamzah Idris as saying.

Bora Milutinovic, who became a household name in China when he led the national team to the 2002 World Cup, advised Chinese players to be confident and make good use of their experienced veterans.

"This will be a very difficult game as Saudi Arabia is experiencing a historic slump and is eager for a victory," the Serb wrote in his sina blog. "They will make every effort to win this game and the Chinese team must be careful and remain confident that they can beat this opponent.

"Saudi Arabia is a young team, while China has some experienced veterans. Players like Zheng Zhi and Yu Dabao used to play overseas, which is a valuable asset for China," said the 68-year-old. "The mental strength of the veterans will lift the whole team, but the players must be very patient.

"Saudi Arabia is strong in attack but weak in defense ― I do believe the Chinese team can create many chances."

China failed to advance from the group stage at the 2011 Asian Cup in Qatar. Its best results at the tournament were runner-up finishes in 2004 as host and 1984 in Singapore.