China and beyond: Zhang Linpeng's Euro vision

Peter Davis talks to one of China's hottest properties – Guangzhou Evergrande defender Zhang Linpeng – about maturing as a player and moving overseas...

At 25 years old, Zhang Linpeng is a talent in his prime. He is a force in the AFC Champions League, Chinese Super League and internationally for China. Singled out by former Evergrande manager Marcello Lippi as “the best footballer in the Chinese league”, he has also built a reputation in Italy where there are consistent murmurs of a move to giants Inter Milan.

“I hope such an opportunity will come,” he says in response to FFT breaching the topic of the Inter link.

There will be an element of hesitation in any Chinese player thinking about a move abroad as so few have tasted success recently. This includes Zhang’s nemesis last season Zhang Xizhe, 24, whose move from being an attacking menace at Beijing Guoan to not even making an appearance to date for VfL Wolfsburg in the Bundesliga raised eyebrows.

Zhang Linpeng shot through China’s international youth ranks and is now among the country’s most decorated players as a one-time AFC Champions League winner, four-time Chinese Super League winner and an East Asian Football Championship champion with China. Add to that now an inclusion in the FFT Asia 50 to his name too!

“My inclusion [in the FFT Asia 50] is recognition of the progress I've made as a player over recent seasons. Now I'll have to use it as an incentive to push myself harder once more and try to become an even stronger player,” he said.

Well on the way to 200 appearances, Zhang is becoming a wise player thanks to the tutelage he has received in recent years. He has even drawn comparisons to Real Madrid and Spain star Sergio Ramos as Zhang is a dangerous defender able to contribute goals.

Guangzhou Evergrande have become a Chinese football juggernaut and few players in the country would turn down the chance to play for them. They brought Lippi into China and a host of high-quality foreign and domestic players that have filled their trophy cabinet along the way. With Italian legend Fabio Cannavaro now in charge, Zhang finds himself learning from a player often considered the best defender of his generation.

“Lippi taught me many things — not only on the pitch but also in life. He helped me mature and also become a lot stronger as a person. It was his real desire to win that made a deep impression on me when he arrived and now I have a similar mind set myself,” he said.

This season Guangzhou Evergrande have stiff competition as they push for the title. A rough start, by their high standards, finds them second behind Sven-Göran Eriksson’s Shanghai SIPG. They have dropping points to Changchun Yatai and lost to Henan Jianye, alongside a Champions League loss to Japanese side Kashima Antlers.

Ever the perfectionist, Zhang still feels the CSL Champions of the last four years still have improvements to make.

“I'm not particularly pleased [with the start to the season],” he said.

“As a team we've encountered a lot of problems, particularly on the defensive side of things. But the coach [Cannavaro] has sat and talked us through some of the issues and we're now very much heading in the right direction once again,” he said.

Being second after just a handful of games is no cause for panic. Guangzhou Evergrande have a few games to build up to a clash mid-May with Sven’s SIPG. However, for Zhang the draw of a big move to Europe might end his personal chase for the another Chinese Super League title.

As we wait to see which Chinese player will move next in an attempt to crack Europe, Zhang Linpeng remains one of the most likely to be the target of a big move.

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