China’s slim World Cup qualification hopes took a major dent at the Azadi Stadium in Tehran this evening as they fell to a 1-0 defeat against Iran. Having been fortunate to make it through the first half unscathed, Marcelo Lippi’s men allowed Mehdi Taremi to score just 32 seconds into the second period and never looked like mounting a fightback against a side that has now gone 938 World Cup qualifying minutes without conceding a goal.
Respective 1-0 wins for South Korea and Uzbekistan over Syria and Qatar mean that China now sit seven points adrift of the third place playoff spot with three games remaining.
2018 FIFA World Cup Qualifying – Asian Zone: Round 3, Group A
Despite their historic 1-0 win over South Korea last Thursday night, China remained major underdogs for a match away to an Iranian side that has now lost just once in 29 matches since 2014. So it was a surprise to see Lippi send out an ambitious looking 4-3-3 formation with strikers Yu Dabao, Zhang Yuning and Gao Lin all in the side. The intention of the line-up seemed to be to allow China to play in a more direct style, thus limiting the danger of losing the ball in midfield and succumbing to Iran’s ruthless counter-attack. Unfortunately, Zhang really struggled in the centre forward role, meaning that the visitors kept easily losing possession and became overrun in midfield.
This manifested itself in an opening 45 minutes where the Iranians mustered ten shots with four on target in comparison to two wayward Chinese efforts. Goalkeeper Zeng Cheng made his first save on 7 minutes when he pushed a long range Reza Ghoochannejad shot over the bar in what proved to be a busy half for the 30-year-old..
With China offering little resistance, Team Melli continued to pepper Zeng’s goal and the Guangzhou Evergrande stopper was called upon to make three more saves before the interval – the best of which was pulled off at close quarters in response to a half-volley from left-back Milad Mohammadi. Former Tianjin TEDA centre back Morteza Pourajiganji also went close with a spectacular scissor-kick which flew over the bar just before the interval.
The half-time whistle came as a huge relief to the Chinese, and it was pretty clear that Lippi was going to make changes during the interval. The Italian duly obliged by replacing Zhang Yuning with Wu Lei to add some pace to the attack and switching the tired looking Zhang Xizhe with Huang Bowen in the midfield. The changes made sense and the logic of bringing Wu on to get in behind a side that would increasingly push forward for the win was clear.
Unfortunately, all of those best laid plans were undone less than a minute after the restart when Taremi took advantage of some slack Chinese defending to fire his side into the lead. First, Alireza Jahanbakhsh beat Jiang Zhipeng down the left flank, before side footing a low cross which Zheng Zhi failed to properly clear. Wu Xi and Masoud Shojaei clahed for the follow up, causing the ball to pop up into the air and Jiang twice failed to properly head clear. Under pressure from Shojaei, Huang Bowen was able to head away at the third time of asking, but the ball only made it as far as Taremi who fired goalwards. Having had an excellent game against South Korea and a fine first half here, Zeng should have done better with Taremi’s effort, but he couldn’t get a firm hand on the ball and allowed it to trickle agonizingly over the goal line.
Wu Xi took a whack on the nose in the build-up to the goal and had to be replaced by Yin Hongbo but it made little difference as the lead meant that Iran could do what they do best which is sit back and hit on the counter. As a consequence, China did see more of the ball in the second half but had little to show for it. The visitors’ opportunities were limited to off-target headers from Yu Dabao and Mei Fang from Huang Bowen set pieces and Iran’s lead rarely appeared to be in doubt.
As predicted in our match preview, the result was not a surprise, but the performance was a worry for a side that must now win their remaining three qualifiers. It’s fair to say that Lippi got things tactically wrong for the first time in charge of China by picking Zhang Yuning to play centre forward and ceding control of the midfield to Iran. The 20-year-old Zhang has barely played for the first team of club Vitesse Arnhem this season and appeared out of his depth against such a well organized opponent. Meanwhile, the logic of giving up possession to a side that likes to counter-attack was sound, but the execution was poor with China on the backfoot throughout the duration of the first half.
Zeng Cheng’s display allowed China to get away with it in the first half, but Taremi’s goal meant that Lippi’s possible masterplan of bringing on Wu Lei capitalize on a stretched out Iran was dead within 32 seconds of the restart. Indeed, the goal itself was a casue for concern, with left-back Jiang Zhipeng being particularly worthy of blame after looking greatly improved against South Korea.
In many ways a 0-0 draw at home to Qatar could be considered a worse result than a 1-0 defeat away to the best team in Asia. But that stalemate in Kunming back in November came in spite of a positive performance. This 1-0 scoreline comes in spite of a poor performance and Iran – who have now scored just six goals in seven group matches – may have had a two or three goal lead at half-time.
The next qualifier will be played against Syria in June. Having suffered a shock defeat to the Syrians in Xi’an last October, Thursday’s win would have given a sense of optimism that China could reverse that result. This disappointing performance in Iran throws doubt upon that and Lippi will need to be at his best in order to earn the necessary victory.