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Asian Cup 2015: Can challengers China become a football powerhouse?

Once upon a time in China… the two-time Asian Cup runners-up have their eye on achieving football supremacy, and a first triumph in Australia would go some way to increasing their status in the sport.

Long a superpower in gymnastics and table tennis, the East Asian giants have fallen behind many of their smaller neighbours in the footballing world.

This looks set to change, with an increasing fanaticism for the sport and a plan to introduce courses in Chinese schools aimed at rearing the world’s next superstars.

Before Team Dragon can think about besting bitter regional rivals and East Asian big-guns Japan and South Korea in the future, they must find a path in the present, through a tricky Group B containing three-time champions Saudi Arabia.

Former French defender Alain Perrin now has control of Team Dragon’s reigns, and has overseen some encouraging pre-tournament results.

Perrin’s most recent squad picks are players based entirely in China, something that will surely have to change if Team Dragon are to enjoy a better tomorrow.

Versatile skipper Zheng Zhi now plies his trade under former World Cup-winning captain Fabio Cannavaro for Super League champions Ghangzhou Evergrande and, as his country’s most-capped current player, will be expected to lead from wherever Perrin places him.

After his exploits in Europe for Charlton Athletic and Celtic, the 34-year-old midfielder’s experience makes him essential to his coach’s plans. Luckily for China, Zhi appears to be in fine form of late.

Team Dragon have shown a recent propensity to take the lead early and then concede in the closing stages, which is an aspect of their play that will give Perrin cause for concern.

However, the Oriental outfit have less headache’s up front, where they can count on rampant wingman Wu Lei, generously nicknamed the ‘Chinese Diego Maradona’ due’ to his goal scoring prowess.

The Shanghai East Asia star, still only 23, also holds the record as the youngest player in his home nation to take part in a competitive fixture, after enjoying his debut aged just 14, and will certainly be one to watch.

Lei will likely be tasked with supporting Xu Yang, who has racked up 13 goals in 31 caps, and has been in a rich vein of form after being on target in two recent friendlies.

China could certainly be dark horses for the competition after winning 15 of their last 17 clashes. Team Dragon’s impressive form under Perrin includes two draws against tournament favourites Japan and South Korea, as well as a swashbuckling win over hosts Australia, which is an intriguing omen for their chances of lifting a first Asian Cup.