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Team Dragon's Rise or Fall: How Will China Fare in Its World Cup Qualifiers?
   2015-04-21 16:38:34    CRIENGLISH.com      Web Editor: Xie Tingting

By Bejan Siavoshy

China can count itself among the teams in Asia preparing to do battle for a trip to the 2018 World Cup in Russia. With the second-round draw of Asia's cup qualifiers having been announced last week, Team Dragon is considered the strongest in its group, which includes Qatar, Bhutan, the Maldives and Hong Kong, China.

But before we see how China matches up with their on-pitch adversaries, let's see just where the men of the Middle Kingdom stand ahead of the group opener.

China has been in its best form as a football team since its dismal 2013 performance, when the team lost 5-1 against a Thai squad that was, at the time, ranked 47 spots below them in 142nd. The subsequent sacking of then-coach Jose Antonio Camacho opened the way for current manager Alain Perrin to step in and turn things around for Team Dragon in 2014.

Under Perrin's guidance, China went on a tear leading up to the Asian Cup in 2015, racking up a 10-game unbeaten streak. Entering the Asian Cup in Australia earlier this year as underdogs in their group, China shut out Saudi Arabia 1-0 in their first group-stage match to put the rest of their competition on notice.

However, it was their 2-1 victory over a surging and higher-ranked Uzbekistan team that got the attention of the Asian soccer world and nabbed China its first Asian Cup quarter-finals berth in 11 years. China went on to finish at the top of the group, with a following win over already-eliminated North Korea.

While China eventually got knocked out of the tournament by Australia, who would go on to win the trophy on their home turf, the Chinese squad was given a warm welcome when they arrived in Beijing following their Asian Cup exit. This, just two years after their embarrassing loss to Thailand, which sparked riots that resulted in at least 100 people being injured, according to a report in the Sydney Morning Herald.

So now, at 82nd in the world, China is on something of a comeback and are on the fans' good side (for now), but how will Team Dragon fare against the competition?

The biggest obstacle standing between China and the knockout stage is Qatar. Alain Perrin said as much to Chinese media last week, when the draw was announced. Having coached the Qatari youth team and local clubs in the Gulf nation, the Frenchman said, "I am full of confidence for the success of China, butĄ­I don't want to play against Qatar." Perrin added that, due to his intimate knowledge of the Qataris' level of play, he feels they are "the strongest team" in the group and was hoping to avoid them in the draw.

Perrin might be on to something; China and Qatar last clashed at the 2011 Asian Cup, where the Maroon dumped Team Dragon 2-0. Although they are ranked 99th, the Qataris have only dropped four games in the last 21 games and won their third Gulf Nations cup in 2014. Their last two games were wins in international friendlies over Algeria and Slovenia in March.

Qatar is also eager to show that they are a football power and earn a spot in the World Cup in Russia, before they are given the automatic entrance when they host the tournament in 2022.

However, three of those four losses the Qataris suffered were during their lackluster showing at this year's Asian Cup, where they crashed out in the group stage. China, on the other hand, topped their group.

The other interesting opponent for China will be the Hong Kong team.

The football team has represented Hong Kong in international football before 1997, when it was still a British colony. Although it is now a special administrative region of the PRC, under the "one country, two systems" agreement, Hong Kong maintains its own teams for global competition - in this case, in football.

China drawing Hong Kong re-ignites an old on-pitch rivalry that came to a crescendo in 1985. In that year's World Cup qualifier, Hong Kong needed to beat China to advance, while China only needed a draw to go on to the next round. Hong Kong earned a 2-1 upset victory over a Chinese squad that was heavily favored in their group. Fans in Beijing rioted after the match and the day was remembered as one of the darkest moments in Chinese soccer history.

China wouldn't get closer to qualifying for a World Cup tournament until their first in 2002.

However, that huge upset has not been the norm when the two teams subsequently met on the pitch. In the two sides' most recent meetings, China took back to back wins over Hong Kong, 1-0 on the island, and a whopping 7-0 in Guangzhou - Hong Kong's worst defeat to an Asian team to date.

The other two teams China will face are minnows Maldives and Bhutan.

Bhutan has become something of a Cinderella story; they are literally the worst team in the world, being ranked dead last in FIFA. However, Bhutan made it into the qualifiers after an unprecedented victory run against Sri Lanka.

The Maldives' biggest win came in 2008, when they beat India 1-0 in the SAFF final, but have a pretty unimpressive record against competition outside of Asia. Their other notable showing is a 0-0 tie against South Korea in the second round of qualifiers for the 2006 World Cup.

With China's improved quality of play as of late, Team Dragon is just on another level compared to teams from Bhutan, the Maldives and Hong Kong - China should be able to handle all three of these teams with ease.

It's the Qataris that China has to worry about; but with a coach that has an intimate knowledge of Qatar's football talent and style, like China has in Perrin, Team Dragon could be the team with the edge in that matchup.

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