LONDON: China coach Massimiliano Maddaloni has warned his in-form team that they face a battle to progress to the quarterfinal, ahead of today’s Asian Games second-round clash against Saudi Arabia.
China took maximum points from the group stage with victories over Timor Leste, Syria and the United Arab Emirates, scoring 11 goals and conceding just one.
Excitement has been rising in East Asia that the team could go all the way in Indonesia and take gold, but Maddaloni is striving to keep his players’ feet very much on the ground and minds focused on the tough test ahead.
The Italian coach has told his relatively experienced stars that they will have to be at their best against the Young Falcons if they are to make good on their group-stage promise.
“Saudi Arabia came through a tough group and that will mean that they are fully ready and tested for the knockout stage,” Maddaloni told Arab News.
“They are a young team with plenty of energy when they attack.”
The 52-year-old is hoping that the earlier victories over West Asian opposition will stand China in good stead.
“I don’t want to talk about it too much but technically they are good and move the ball around quickly,” added Maddaloni who has been working with senior team coach Marcello Lippi and was a former assistant to the World Cup winner at Chinese powerhouses Guangzhou Evergrande. “Saudi Arabia are also well-organized and defend well. They lost against North Korea but rested a lot of their players.”
China were perhaps the most impressive of the 25 participants in the group stage. Unlike Saudi Arabia, who are focused on preparing for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics and have brought a young team to Indonesia, the East Asians are hoping for success right now, and hope to continue their group-stage form in the knockout rounds.
“The best part about winning three games is that it has improved our confidence,” Maddaloni said. “Even when things may not go according to plan during the game, the team believes that they can turn the situation around. The players understand that this is a tournament and there will be ups and downs along the way.”
China have been preparing for the tournament since early 2017. Zhang Yuning is one of the stars of the side and is currently on loan to ADO Den Haag in the top tier of the Netherlands league from England’s West Bromwich Albion.
“We haven’t had such a great feeling of winning in this way for a very long time,” Zhang, who has scored two goals so far, said.
“Before, I never dreamed we could score like this. These results are a dream come true. I’m truly thrilled.”
Playing in Europe has helped the forward develop his game.
“I did great preparation work for the new season with my club, and I played many games consecutively,” Zhang added.
“Because of those games and the trust of my coach, I feel that I have improved and I’ve taken that form with me here for the national team.”
Wei Shihao of Beijing Guoan has already made his debut for the senior national team and shown his attacking prowess with three goals in the group stage, while Yao Junsheng scored one of the goals of the tournament, a lob against the UAE, from the center circle.
The only injury concern ahead of the clash today is Chinese international Liu Yiming. The towering central defender, who plays for Tianjin Quanjian, picked up a ligament injury against the UAE but is expected to be fit for Saudi Arabia.