A little over a month after they sealed the Chinese Super League title with four matches to spare, Guangzhou Yiyao have seen six of their star players, spearheaded by former Charlton FC playmaker Zheng Zhi, named in Jose Camacho's 26-man provisional squad for next week’s 2014 FIFA World Cup Brazil™ qualifier against Iraq.
Having lost the first leg against the Iraqis at home 1-0, the hopes of the east Asians are hanging by a thread and they face a must-win scenario in Doha. Although this seems to be a familiar situation for China PR, having failed to reach the continent's final qualifying phase during the last two FIFA World Cup campaigns, many supporters remain optimistic that the team’s fortunes can be revived, inspired by the in-form Guangzhou gang.
It is a view expressed by former Everton and China defender Li Tie, who believes Zheng Zhi and his club team-mates are capable of steering China through choppy waters. "Big Zhi has been an integral part this season as Guangzhou won their first Super League title," he told FIFA.com in a recent exclusive interview. "He is the sort of player who can make the difference when it matters. Boosted by their recent domestic success, I think he and his team-mates can make a major impact with the national team."
Li Tie’s remarks are, of course, not without basis given the stunning domestic form of Guangzhou as the club claimed the Chinese championship unchallenged. Among the contingent are midfield schemer Zhi, the diminutive but pacy Wu Pingfeng, and Zhang Linpeng, who is capable of opening up the game with accurate long-distance passes. At the back, Sun Xiang and Feng Xiaoting formed one of the C-League's meanest defensive partnerships as Guangzhou conceded just 23 goals in 30 matches. At the other end of the field, free-scoring Gao Lin finished the team's second top-scorer with 11 goals.
Not surprisingly, their importance to the national team has proved to be second to none. Sent on as a second-half substitute in the opener against Singapore, Zhi played a pivotal role as China recorded a 2-1 comeback victory. Sun Xiang started in China’s previous three games, while Gao Lin posed the biggest threat to Iraq coming close to scoring on more than one occasion.
The last two outings against both Jordan and Iraq saw China dominate proceedings only to agonisingly lose both. "We didn't play that badly but we perhaps lacked the necessary luck to win the games," said Zhi, the vastly-experienced midfielder who figured in China's failed campaigns for both Germany 2006 and South Africa 2010. "But it is too premature to write us off as there are still three games remaining. Iraq won at our home so why can't we avenge the defeat by beating them at Doha."
The final word goes to Sun Xiang who summed up the determination of the Guangzhou gang in keeping the nation’s Brazil 2014 dream alive. "We can achieve our goal if we relive our club form for our country,” he said. “And we are left with no option but to strive to defeat Iraq. We must do so no matter what stars our opponents boast.”