Slick teen lifts China World Cup hopes
Teenage forward Zhang Yuning has given China's World Cup hopes a lift after a bustling competitive debut confirmed his emergence as one of the country's most exciting new football talents.
The Dutch-based 19-year-old, instantly recognisable by his slicked-back hair, proved a real handful for Iran's defence as China held Asia's top-ranked side 0-0 for their first point in the final round of qualifying for Russia 2018.
Zhang was singled out by Iran's experienced coach Carlos Queiroz after Tuesday's stand-out performance, in which he twice came close to breaking the deadlock in Shenyang.
It follows his breakthrough as the first Chinese player to score in the Netherlands' Eredivisie, when he nodded an injury-time winner for Vitesse Arnhem against Roda JC in March.
Zhang also scored on the last day of the season against FC Twente and, after bagging two in China's 4-2 friendly win against Trinidad and Tobago in June, his first competitive international was only a matter of time.
Coach Gao Hongbo chose to start Zhang in Shenyang and it proved an astute move as the teenager came close with a spectacular effort in the first half, and was only denied by a desperate block in the second before he came off on 79 minutes.
"It's very exciting. To represent China on the global stage is one of my dreams when I was a kid," Zhang told the Global Times. "I think the pace of the qualifier is fine with me, I don't have any worries."
Zhang's rise is tantalising for China as they attempt not only to reach their second World Cup, but also to build a team capable of challenging established powers in the future.
Zhang was only five in 2002 when China finished winless and goalless in their only World Cup finals appearance, and puts a fresh new face on the team after years of disappointments on the international stage.
Tuesday's draw kept China in the hunt for a spot at Russia 2018, but Gao was keen to play down expectations despite promising signs on Tuesday and in last week's 3-2 defeat to South Korea.
"Our team is the last one getting into this round. All the other teams are tough for us," said Gao, according to the Global Times. "But I am satisfied that the players fought to the end."
However, Queiroz, the former Portugal coach and one-time assistant to Alex Ferguson at Manchester United, warned that China's opponents should underestimate them at their peril.
"All the games are like the finals. Coach Gao has made China compact and enthusiastic," said the Portuguese.
© 2016 AFP