Stars align for China: against all odds, they reach third round of World Cup qualifying
Asian heavyweights stun Qatar, then rely on other results to go their way, including North Korea throwing away victory in the Philippines
China coach Gao Hongbo, his players and an entire nation were thanking their lucky stars this morning after the Asian heavyweights stayed alive in World Cup qualifying against all the odds.
China joined Australia and Japan in the next round after stunning Qatar 2-0 in their last group C match in Xian on Tuesday night.
China were helped greatly by the Philippines’ shock 3-2 victory over North Korea in Manila. North Korea appeared to be heading for victory and into the next round when they led 2-1, but conceded two goals in the final six minutes to crash out of contention.
China have only qualified for the World Cup once, in 2002, but President Xi Jinping is spearheading a drive to turn the giant Asian country into a footballing power.
“It was a tough game,” said Hongbo. “But the players did what they had to do. We will enjoy this result for a little while before thinking about what comes next.”
Their chances of reaching Russia 2018 took an upturn in the 57th minute, when midfielder Huang Bowen buried a shot from outside the penalty box into the corner after a goalmouth scramble.
This was followed by a close-range strike in the 88th minute by Wu Lei, who had come close twice before.
Huang said Hongbo, who stepped in for the final two games after Alain Perrin’s sacking, deserved praise.
“He told us maybe 2018 was the last edition for the players of the age group from 1985 to 1989 and encouraged us not to give up, even if there was only 1 per cent of hope,” the Guangzhou Evergrande midfielder said.
Qatar, who will host the 2022 World Cup, were lacklustre and showed little threat despite their perfect record in their other qualifying games.
China brought greater organisation and energy, boosted by a raucous 50,000 strong crowd in the ancient capital of Xian.
“My luck was good, it was a team effort,” Huang told state broadcaster CCTV, before adding: “Chinese football is gradually improving.”
Qualification for the next phase was a major turnaround for China, who sacked Frenchman Perrin after a disappointing 0-0 draw with Hong Kong in November left their campaign hanging by a thread.
The draw for the third round, where the 12 teams will be split into two groups and the top two from each advance to Russia 2018, will take place next month
Earlier, veteran striker Tim Cahill scored twice as Australia eased past Harry Redknapp’s Jordan 5-1, while Borussia Dortmund’s Shinji Kagawa also netted a double in Japan’s 5-0 win over Syria.
In Sydney, Cahill, now 36 and playing for China’s Hangzhou Greentown, struck twice in the first half against Jordan to stretch his record Australian tally to 47 goals in 89 games.
Australia’s other scorers were home-based midfielder Aaron Mooy, Celtic’s Tom Rogic and QPR youngster Massimo Luongo, while Bayer Leverkusen’s Robbie Kruse added three assists.
Redknapp, in only his second game with Jordan after being hired to steer them into the next phase, said Asian Cup-holders Australia were a “different class”.
“They had a bit too much quality and they looked a lot fitter than us, they were sharper... there was a big gulf in class tonight,” he said.
Meanwhile, war-torn Syria made it through as one of the best second-placed teams despite the late flurry of goals which consigned them to a 5-0 defeat in Saitama.
A freak own goal from Hamdi al-Masri after 17 minutes put Japan in front, before Kagawa’s double alongside late strikes from Keisuke Honda and Genki Haraguchi gave the scoreline gloss.
Japan ended the second round of qualifiers with 27 goals scored and none conceded from their eight games, but Honda warned the Blue Samurai would face tougher challenges ahead.
“It was a goal to go through qualifying with no goals against so that was satisfying,” AC Milan’s Honda told Japan’s NHK Television.
“But there are still some things we need to work on. We got caught on the counter several times and stronger opponents will make us pay, so we need to be wary of that.”
South Korea, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Uzbekistan, UAE, Iraq and Thailand are also through to the next phase.
UAE held Saudi Arabia 1-1 in group A to finish second thanks to a 52nd minute equaliser from Omar Abdulrahman after Taisir al-Jassim had put the visitors ahead in Abu Dhabi. The draw helped the Emiratis join the Saudis, who topped the group, in the next round.
Iran, who played at the World Cup in Brazil, beat Oman 2-0 in Tehran thanks to a Sardar Azmoun brace, while Uzbekistan advanced from group H after Sardor Rashidov gave them a 1-0 win over Bahrain.
Iraq qualified after beating Vietnam 1-0 in group F.