Zheng Zhi favourite for top Asian honours

Posted by John Duerden

Zheng Zhi is in the running for the Asian Player of the Year award.GettyImagesZheng Zhi is in the running for the Asian Player of the Year award.

The attention of the international media may be more focused on the Ballon D'Or but this year’s edition of the annual Asian awards ceremony offers considerable ammunition for pun-loving headline writers. If Zheng Zhi wins the Asian Player of the Year prize then it’s “ZZ Top”, International Asian Player of the Year nominee Keisuke Honda offers obvious motoring-related material while German journalists just can’t resist riffing with “Sonsational” Son Heung-min.

Honda and Son may be bigger names than Zheng but in terms of prestige, their category is something of a sideshow. The international prize was added last year in response to years of controversy that had damaged the standing of the award. The continent’s superstars were mostly in Europe winning titles and starring in the UEFA Champions League yet, because of their inability to attend a midweek Malaysian party, were always ruled ineligible. Indignation over this rule always created more headlines than the actual event itself so, wisely, a new category was added. But the international prize is not the main draw.

Zheng is odds-on to become the 2013 Asian Player of the Year. The former Charlton Athletic midfielder briefly flirted with the English Premier League before looking pretty good in the Championship for the south-east London team. In 2009, he headed north to Glasgow Celtic. The Shenyang-born star returned home in 2010 but not, as you would expect from a Chinese international with more European experience than the vast majority of his compatriots, to a title-challenger. Instead, he headed to the second division.

What looked to be a regression was not the result of the nightmarish Beijing Olympics in 2008 when Zheng, an overage player and the one expected to lead the team to the latter stages, was one of the worst performers in a team that completely flopped. It was because the newly-relegated team that wanted ZZ was Guangzhou Evergrande. This wasn’t a case of taking one step back to take two forward, it was just a huge leap in the right direction from the get-go. Joining the Cantonese club in 2010 was the best football decision that Zheng has ever made.

Since then, with the midfielder at the core, the Reds have been promoted and then added three Chinese Super League titles. But the trophy that has put Zheng on this shortlist is the 2013 Asian Champions League. Since the arrival of Marcello Lippi in May last year, Zheng has improved more than most thought a player in the twilight of his career (he is now 33) ever could. The foreign stars such as Dario Conca and Muriqui get the headlines but Zheng has been Lippi’s lieutenant. During the second leg of the Asian final against Seoul earlier this month, Lippi called the captain over more than once, without an interpreter, to tell him what he wanted. He got an assured performance. At times Zheng dropped back to become a third centre-back as the full-backs bombed forward, and he was there to provide a calming influence just when one was needed.

Captaining a team to the Asian title is a massive advantage. Ha Dae-sung would be odds-on to collect the prize had Seoul not ‘lost’ on away goals. The cultured Korean midfielder was the losing skipper but won all kinds of admirers during the team’s run to the final. In the knockout stage against Al Ahli of Saudi Arabia and Iranian giants Esteghlal, Ha was sublime at times, capped by a beauty of a goal in Tehran in the semi-final.

That defeat probably ended the chances of Javad Nekounam, the third and final player on the list. The Esteghlal midfielder certainly deserves some kind of lifetime achievement -- six seasons in La Liga is nothing to be sniffed at -- and was one of those who fell foul at the peak of his career to the attendance rule.

If the international award has been around a few years ago, the Prince of Persia would surely have collected a trophy or two. Now though, it is left to others. Despite the growing number of Asian stars in the big leagues, not that many are playing week in, week out. Honda has impressed for Japan but his time at CSKA Moscow, soon to be over, much to his relief, is not exactly ending with a bang.

That should leave Yuto Nagatomo to fight it out with Son Heung-min. The Inter full-back has gone from strength to strength in Italy and was a stalwart in Japan’s stroll through qualification for the World Cup. At one time, he divided opinion at home as to whether he could actually defend but now the common feeling is one of pride.

The problem could be that consistent performances as a left-back don’t catch the eye quite as much as barnstorming sprints through the middle and rockets fired into the back of the net. That is Son Heung-min’s party piece and the devastating hat-trick scored earlier this month for Bayer Leverkusen will do his cause no harm at all. The South Korea’s $15 million move from Hamburg in the summer was the right one and he is at a club that fits him well, even if his new career has started a little slowly.

And then there is the third category -- the best foreign player in Asia. Here too, Guangzhou dominate with Dario Conca and Muriqui. Dejan Damjanovic is the other. Again, if Seoul had clinched the Asian title, then the Montenegrin marksman, who has been in fine form for club, domestically and on the continent, and as well for his country, would be getting the award.

Muriqui may have been the Asian Champion League’s top scorer and the tournament MVP but Dario Conca rivals the Brazilian and then some, thanks to setting standards rarely seen in the giant continent. The Argentine is returning to South America and is likely to have something special to declare to customs when he touches down as is team-mate Zheng when he arrives back in Guangzhou from Kuala Lumpur.

Comments

Use a Facebook account to add a comment, subject to Facebook's Terms of Service and Privacy Policy. Your Facebook name, photo & other personal information you make public on Facebook will appear with your comment, and may be used on ESPN's media platforms. Learn more.