China’s slim chances of making the 2018 World Cup now dangle by the most finite of threads after Ahmad Al-Salih’s 93rd minute free kick cruelly denied them three points in Malaysia on Wednesday night. Goals from Gao Lin and Wu Xi had overturned a 1-0 half-time deficit, and appeared to be enough to secure a vital win for China until Al-Salih’s strike left China with little more than mathematical straws to clutch at as their hopes of finishing in a third-place playoff position look all but gone.
Marcelo Lippi’s overcame an early setback when goalkeeper Zeng Cheng clumsily tripped Fahd Youssef inside the first ten minutes; allowing Mahmoud Al-Mawas to give Syria the lead with a retaken penalty. Given how Syria’s stingy defence had shipped just three goals in seven previous qualifiers, China’s hopes of a fightback looked bleak, but they demonstrated just how much they’ve improved since Lippi took charge last October with a strong performance which almost resulted in a win.
2018 World Cup qualifying – AFC Final Round, Group A
Al-Mawas 12′(pen), Al-Salih 90+3′
Gao Lin 67′(pen), Wu Xi 75
Even before Al-Mawas’s penalty, a decent long range effort from Gao Lin had matched the one shot on target China mustered when these sides met last October and the visitors pressured Syria for the remainder of a first half which culminated with a Zhang Linpeng header hitting the crossbar in stoppage time.
China’s dominacne continued after the interval, although the way they levelled things up left a sour taste in the mouth. Midway through the second period, Zhang was chasing a cleared corner that was moving away from goal when he took an extravagant dive under minimal contact from substitute Nasouh Al Nakdali. The Guangzhou Evergrande man’s theatrics were enough to convince referee Ammar Aljeneibi to award a penalty.
Given Gao Lin’s reputation for blasting the ball over the bar, there were hearts in mouths when the forward placed the ball on the penalty spot, but the 31-year-old kept his nerve to bring China level.
Less than 10 minutes later, the Chinese were in front when second half substitutes Jiang Zhipeng and Xiao Zhi linked up to set-up Wu Xi. Jiang picked out his Guangzhou R&F teammate with a pinpoint cross, and Xiao nodded the ball down for Wu to emphatically fire home.
The goal vindicated Xiao’s inclusion in the squad and seemed like it would be enough for an important Chinese win until Al-Salih’s late strike. In fact, the Henan Jianye centre-back had helped preserve the one goal deficit just minutes before his stoppage time strike when he made a perfectly timed penalty area tackle on Wu Lei. Just moments later, Wu had another chance to seal the win when he found himself through on goal but, as has become his custom in a China shirt, he blasted the ball emphatically off target.
That allowed Al-Salih to break Chinese hearts with a well struck free-kick that goalkeeper Zeng could take some criticism for not keeping out. The strike was heading in the direction of the top corner, but was not perfectly placed and the Wuhan born stopper was able to get a hand to the ball without managing to keep it out. It would be harsh to blame Zeng for the goal, but it is fair to say he would likely be disappointed in himself for not keeping it out.
The draw, along with Qatar’s surprising 3-2 victory over South Korea, leaves China bottom of the pile in Group A, but with a mathematical chance of finishing in the third place needed to make it to a playoff. For that to happen, Guozu must beat Uzbekistan and Qatar in their last two games, while also hoping that the latter lose their final match at home to South Korea. On top of that, Lippi’s men also need a four goal swing in goal difference, while also hoping that Syria pick up less than four points in their remaining games against Qatar and Iran.
It seems like China have been on the precipice of World Cup elimination ever since their 0-0 draw in Hong Kong in October 2015, but they are now hanging there by a fingernail with little hope of being saved. Even had Al-Salih not produced his late heroics, China would still have been outsiders to make it to Russia, but now things are truly bleak.
The most frustrating thing for Chinese fans should be the fact that with this performance, and the 1-0 win over South Korea in March, the national team have shown that they are capable of competing at this level and should be much closer to their dream of playing in their second World Cup. A 2-2 draw with Syria may not look impressive to the casual observer but China are the first team to put two goals past the Qasioun Eagles in 13 games dating back to June 2016; a run that includes matches against continental powerhouses South Korea, Iran and Japan.
The most telling example of how far China have come under Lippi can be seen in comparing this display with the inept and anemic performance turned out under Gao Hongbo when these sides played each other back in October. China look like an entirely different team under the Italian and one can only wonder what might have happened had the former Guangzhou Evergrande boss taken charge before this round of qualification got underway in September.
Al-Salih’s free kick will stick in the craw for a long time to come, but the damage was done last year and comfort can at least be taken in the fact that the national team is clearly improving. Unfortunately, barring a miracle, it appears that won’t count for much until the Asian Cup kicks-off in the UAE in January 2019.
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