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2018 Fifa World Cup Asian qualifying

China’s World Cup fire is alive after South Korea win, but there is still a long way to go: Marcello Lippi

Yu Dabao’s first half header secures 1-0 victory at He Long Stadium in Changsha on Thursday ahead of next week’s trip to face group A leaders Iran

PUBLISHED : Friday, 24 March, 2017, 12:56pm
UPDATED : Friday, 24 March, 2017, 10:34pm

Coach Marcello Lippi described China’s much-heralded win over South Korea on Thursday as keeping the Russia 2018 qualification “tinder alive for us” but the veteran World Cup winning Italian remained cautious ahead of next week’s daunting trip to group A leaders Iran.

Yu Dabao scored the only goal in the first half at He Long Stadium in Changsha as China recorded a first win of the final round of qualifiers despite sustaining heavy pressure in the second half from Asia’s number two ranked side.

The win, which was only China’s second in 32 previous meetings with South Korea, coupled with another surprise win for Syria over Uzbekistan, leaves Lippi’s side fifth in the six-team table but now just four points adrift of third which offers a place in the play-offs.

Unbeaten Iran extended their lead at the top of the table to four points with a 1-0 win in Qatar, with second-place Korea just a point clear of third place Uzbekistan, with Syria now only a point further back after following up last year’s win over China.

Watch: China 1-0 South Korea highlights

“The game was very critical for us considering the situation. A draw would have been meaningless, we had to get three points and we made it. We’ve still got a lot of work to do, and there is still room for improvement, but we need to get better in limited time,” said Lippi, who extended his unbeaten start in the qualifiers after overseeing November’s draw at home with Qatar.

“The game kept the tinder alive for us, if we drew or lost today, we would have lost the hope.

“Now we are five points away from the second team in the group and we must play well in the next games and hope we could win as many games as possible.”

But amid all the furore created by the win, the reality is China head to Tehran on Tuesday to face Carlos Queiroz’s Iran, with Asia’s number one ranked side unbeaten in group A and having won their last seven World Cup qualifiers at home, including a 1-0 victory over South Korea in October.

Watch: Qatar 0-1 Iran highlights

China were visibly a better side against South Korea after Lippi had called for the team to defend “the honour of 1.4 billion Chinese people”, with the legendary Italian working the same magic which saw him lead Guangzhou Evergrande to the AFC Champions League title in 2013, and the long term future for Asia’s ninth ranked side looks much brighter with qualification for the 2019 AFC Asian Cup already secured.

But defeat on Tuesday could potentially leave China, with automatic qualification for a first World Cup since 2002 surely too much to ask even for the most optimistic fan, staring at a seven point gap to just make the play-off with the third place finisher from group B with just three games remaining.

Marcello Lippi is good for Asian football, says Iran coach Carlos Queiroz as the two prepare to lock horns

“We were not in good form today, and our formation wasn’t the best. I don’t want to see our performance in the first half again as we were so scared of their pressure that we left a lot of space for them,” added Lippi.

“We did very well in the second half, our defence was solid and we created three or four chances to score.

Watch: Syria 1-0 Uzbekistan highlights

“I hope my team won’t be content with today’s performance and I hope their performance will get better and better.

“Actually I think we played better against Qatar and today we did best in defence. I hope they could do better in attack later based on solid defence.”

With each of the two final round groups offering two automatic qualification places, with the third place finishers entering a play-off against each other for the right to then face a team from the North, Central America and Caribbean region, Saudi Arabia and Japan are currently in pole position to progress from group B.

Saudi Arabia recorded a 3-0 win in Thailand, while Japan returned from their trip to the United Arab Emirates with a 2-0 victory, to leave the pair tied at the top of the table and three points clear of third-place Australia, who were held to a 1-1 draw against Iraq in Iran.

Watch: Thailand 0-3 Saudi Arabia highlights

Watch: United Arab Emirates 0-2 Japan highlights

Watch: Iraq 1-1 Australia highlights