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The first ever Chinese player in the Champions League?

If reports are true, then the most populated country in the world is feverishly awaiting the kick-off of PSV Eindhoven versus Arsenal on Tuesday night to see if Sun Xiang has made the starting line-up in the Philips Stadium, no matter if it is the middle of the night in Shanghai.

And maybe these millions of football fans should turn their alarm clocks on as the loanee from Shanghai Shenhua did make his debut in the Dutch Eredivisie this weekend already with a fine display on the artificial turf at Heracles Almelo replacing injured Manuel da Costa, who could be out for weeks.

After the game Ronald Koeman praised him: 'Sun did quite well on his debut for PSV. We knew he started his career as a left winger and a left-footed player gives us more options. He exchanged good passes and delivered some fine crosses.'

Sun Xiang went on trial for a week at Wigan Athletic last year, but was not signed. Last November he and his twin brother Sun Ji were tried by PSV and turned down, but when the club could not find a left back during the winter break to replace Michael Ball, who left for Manchester City after an unsuccessful spell in Eindhoven, interest for Sun Xiang returned.

Shanghai Shenhua, an Asian Champions League quarter finalists last season, were reluctant to let their international go at first but finally gave in after the player begged them to let him go to Europe.

Commercially a Chinese player seems very interesting for PSV. After a tour in 2002 they launched a Chinese language website, while the Hiddink connection with South Korea made them a well-known name in the Far East already.

Young-Pyo Lee, now at Spurs, and Man United's Ji-Sung Park did quite well on the pitch, yet it has not been the financial bonanza the club was hoping for.

'We have had a lot a publicity with the Sun deal. I was interviewed for Chinese television and a football paper, but you have to be careful not to expect to much,', says PSV chairman Frits Schuitema.

Selling official shirts in the East has proved to be a non-starter, especially in China, where sweatshops are masters in duplicating them.

Secondly the rights for live matches of the Eredivisie are not owned by the club but are in the hands of American company TWI. They cannot sell their Champions League games either. What is left for them are news reports and interviews with Sun from the training ground to sell to Chinese networks, which might not be a particularly big money-spinner.

An end-of-season trip to China could be the most lucrative deal the club could have, but then they should definitely be early champions to stay out of the league play-offs and earn some spare time in May.

However, PSV could do with a decent left back. Most Dutch clubs have trouble finding a quality left-footed defender. Apparently it is not a popular position as few come through the ranks of the football academies. Coaches like to convert left-wingers to play at the back, hoping they can cover a lot of ground along the sideline. Gio van Bronckhorst has build his career on this. Sun Xiang is not a born left-back but if he plays like in his debut in Almelo he might succeed in the Eredivisie.

Which, however, is something completely different from playing Arsenal in the Champions League. Some people are afraid that when Sun runs into trouble against Thierry Henry or Adebayor his countrymen won't take kindly to someone losing face. Schuitema does not think so: 'I have worked in China for some time and I know the culture of loosing face, but these football fans are clever enough to understand that not everyone gets a contract at PSV. So the consequences won't be that severe.'

That said, PSV are not at their best at the moment. They went into the short winter break with an eleven points gap on Ajax with AZ Alkmaar in third place. Talk of grabbing the title still in wintertime was rife.

Then a relaxed training camp in Spain was suddenly concluded with a defeat in a friendly against FC Cologne, currently midtable in the German Zweite Liga.

Back home they started the league with a lucky win over Heerenveen followed by an embarrassingly close encounter with a cup knock-out against second tier club Go Ahead Eagles. This was followed by their first loss in six months at Roda JC in Kerkrade with a lacklustre performance.

At the last minute of the transfer deadline Ronald Koeman tried to sign Romano Denneboom of NEC Nijmegen, who has yet to outgrow midtable employers.

With Jefferson Farfan and Arouna Koné out of form and an apparent lack of trust in substitutes Patrick Kluivert and Diego Tardelli the coach suddenly panicked when he looked at his contingent of strikers. NEC refused to let Denneboom go.

Three days later PSV could not capitalize on their superiority over AZ Alkmaar in the first half during the clash in Eindhoven. A single goal lead proved to be too little as the visitors came back in the second half with all guns blazing. Cocu managed to equalize for 2-2, but at the death Danny Koevermans scored the goal that brought the excitement back in the Eredivisie. The next week the leaders ran into more trouble as they surrendered two points at Sparta Rotterdam.

Victory at Heracles and draws from Ajax and AZ at the weekend has widened the gap again and may have brought some confidence back into the side.

Scoring may prove difficult, but the PSV defence has certainly matured since an embarrassing start against Arsenal in the Champions League in 2002, when Gilberto Silva scored within 30 seconds of the kick-off.

Two years later PSV could not beat nine Gunners despite red cards for Vieira and Ljungberg, but they only needed a point to go through in the group phase that night. Ronald Koeman might just settle for two goalless draws and hope for penalties.

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