It wasn’t quite mission impossible for China last night, but it was pretty close. China needed to beat group leaders Qatar and have a number of other results go there way.
Much like when they “fell ass backwards into the Asian Cup” things worked out for them on the night. Even before kick-off in Xi’an, the Australians delivered the first needed result, crushing Jordan in Sydney. None of the other results would matter if China didn’t help themselves with a win, fortunately they were given an assist by their opponents, having been one of the strongest teams in qualifying and already going through, the Qataris played few starters and looked disinterested for much of the match.
Unfortunately, Gao Hongbo stubbornly chose to play Wu Lei as the lone striker, despite having more traditional options on the bench and the move didn’t pay off. After a tepid first half in which China was the better side but never really threatened, Gao brought on Yu Dabao early in the second and things changed quickly, with China jumping ahead. Wu showed the brilliance he’s capable of when played in position in the closing minutes, scoring an excellent goal to secure the win for China.
With the most important step accomplished, China was greeted with unexpected news from the Philippines, meaning the players didn’t wait to see how other results went. North Korea needed a win on the artificial turf in the Philippines, and took a 2-1 lead into the final ten minutes of the match only to implode and concede two goals to more or less guarantee China would advance.
The national team finally brought a measure of joy to football followers in China, but once again they did it the hard way. On paper, advancing should have been a gimmie with only the Qatar match being a struggle. However, over 180 minutes of football with lowly but motivated Hong Kong, China failed to score a goal and only took two points from two matches forcing them into this desperate situation.
On April 12 the draw for the next round of qualifying will be held where China will face off against potential giants like South Korea, Japan, Australia, and Iran needing to finish in the top two of a six team group to punch a ticket to Russia 2018. The last time China made it this far in qualifying was in 2002, also the last time they made it to a World Cup.
The question now becomes if China, facing an uphill battle, will continue to trust in Gao. The last time Gao got them in position and the CFA handed things over to a “bigger” foreign manager, Jose Antonio Camacho brought the national team into the dark ages and almost destroyed Chinese football.
Gao often is too experimental, some of his call-ups seem off the wall, and his tactics can leave you scratching your head (Wu Lei as lone striker last night, for example), but more so than any other China manager in the past 20 years or so, he’s gotten the necessary results.
It makes sense for the CFA to go all in on Gao and let him lead the way. His results speak for themselves and under him their seems to be a unique team elan. Placing faith in the CFA to do the right thing is difficult though. Whether the CFA wants to make a change, they cannot repeat the end of Alain Perrin’s time in charge, firing him a month and a half after his last match. The CFA needs to shit or get off the pot, declare their faith in Gao now or openly state that they are searching for a new manager and get him in place as quickly as possible.
For now, fans can celebrate, but a lot of work needs to be done and the first major decision is to stick with Gao.