Five things to learn for China in 2022 World Cup qualification
A 2-1 victory over Qatar in Doha on Tuesday evening saw China's 2018 World Cup qualification campaign end on a high, with back-to-back victories seeing the side fall just a point short of a playoff berth.
But the side's qualification campaign never really got off the ground with a slow start to the final stage leaving Russia 2018 a distant dream. Under Marcello Lippi's management, however, it was a dream kept alive until the very end.
Attention will swiftly switch towards the potential of qualification in 2022, with a second World Cup appearance currently a national obsession. So how do the prospects look for a successful qualification campaign?
1. Keeping Marcello Lippi is key to any hope of success
As a Sina Sports editorial put it on Wednesday morning, Lippi's dramatic impact since his appointment as head coach has allowed China to walk away from 2018 World Cup qualification with their heads held high.
China relied upon sheer luck to reach the final stage of qualification, drawing twice with Hong Kong in the group stages to advance as one of the lucky losers and a slow start to the final round saw just one point gained from the side's opening four fixtures. However, with Lippi at the helm a further 11 points were added in just six games.
The Italian is not blessed with a deep talent pool, but has found a way to get the most out of an ageing group of players who had never played to their true potential in a China shirt. The side -- many of whom were Lippi charges at Guangzhou Evergrande -- have rarely appeared such a relaxed and confident group, with the same mentality he instilled so successfully at club level transferring to the national stage.
A sole 1-0 defeat at Iran's Azadi Stadium is the one minor blemish on the copybook
2. A way must be found to get strikers playing regularly
China's biggest problem continues to be scoring goals, with just eight strikes registered across their 10 games (0.8 goals/game) in the final stage of qualification. Under Lippi, that average rose to six goals in six games (1.0) including two from the penalty spot.
Over the past year, the Italian has tried a number of strike combinations involving Gao Lin, Xiao Zhi, Yu Dabao and Zhang Yuning. Thus far, none have convinced and at 20 years old, Zhang is the only member of the four with a chance of appearing in four years' time.
China lack strikers playing regularly at club level. Only one of the top 20 goal scorers in the domestic top flight is Chinese and, while he may be talented, attacking midfielder Wu Lei cannot carry the goal scoring burden alone.
Zhang's recent loan move from West Brom to Werder Bremen may see him start some games at a high level in Germany, but a way to get more forwards playing regularly has to be found. With a foreign striker the first item on most club's shopping list each season, it will not be easy to achieve.
3. Replacing Zheng Zhi will be the biggest challenge
Of all the challenges China face, however, the biggest is likely to be replacing captain Zheng Zhi at the heart of the midfield.
While some pieces are in place for the next qualification campaign -- principally the aforementioned Wu, Zhang and creative midfielder Zhang Xizhe -- the truth is that the majority of the squad and current starting XI are either past or approaching their 30th birthday. A major renovation is needed.
Yet, with CSL teams struggling to even fulfil a quota of one under-23 player in each starting lineup, it appears that the next generation are simply not up to the task of matching the current group across all positions. There are no obvious star players on the horizon.
With former Charlton midfielder Zheng -- sent-off on Tuesday in what may be his final appearance in China colours -- the biggest talent the country has produced in quite some time will be first among those likely to bow out, the race is now on to find anybody capable of exerting similar control from the heart of the midfield.
4. Asian football has no opponent to fear
If those were the negatives, the positive must be that Asian football as a whole is offering little reason for China to be worried about its future qualification prospects.
The current campaign was at times a struggle for previous shoo-ins Australia, Japan and South Korea, while the predicted rise of UAE, Uzbekistan and Qatar to become leading players in the region has thus far failed to materialise.
Syria and Iraq present tricky opposition but political and social turmoil mean any concerted progress is surely unlikely, leaving Iran as currently Asia's standout team by some distance.
In conceding one goal across two fixtures with Iran over the past 18 months, including a draw on home soil, China has shown it has little to fear from Asia's best. While challenges face the CFA moving forward, they are far from alone in that respect.
5. Retaining momentum will be the biggest challenge
There can be no doubt that times are as good as they have been in quite some time for the Chinese national side, with a swell of positive feeling behind the team ever since they advanced to the final stage of qualification last year.
The key moving forward will be in retaining that good feeling heading into the next four-year cycle, starting at this December's EAFF East Asian Cup before moving into the 2019 AFC Cup in United Arab Emirates.
China cannot expect to win that tournament, but a strong showing will surely be key to any hope of qualifying for the next World Cup in Qatar three years later.
They have earned back some respect from their Asian rivals with recent victories over South Korea, Uzbekistan and Qatar. They cannot now afford to relinquish that momentum as soon as it has been garnered.
Chris Atkins is based in China and writes for ESPN FC about the Chinese Super League. You can follow him on Twitter @ChrisAtkins_.