Iran blow hole in China’s World Cup bid
Marcello Lippi’s team lose to hosts 1-0 and sit second from bottom of group A with only three games to go after latest setback
Mehdi Taremi’s second-half strike condemned China to a 1-0 defeat by Iran on Tuesday in a major blow to their hopes of qualifying for next year’s World Cup.
Marcello Lippi’s team raised Chinese hopes by upsetting South Korea last week, but they were unable to overturn Iran’s flawless home record in group A.
While Iran, Asia’s top-ranked team, maintain their four-point cushion at the top of the group, China are second from bottom with only three games to go.
A tepid first half came alive near the break when Taremi’s miskick let China off the hook and Zeng Cheng saved well from both Milad Mohammadi and Masoud Shojaei, who then blazed a bicycle kick over the bar.
After keeping Iran at bay in the first half, China will be cursing themselves for the way they conceded immediately after the resumption, when a howler of a defensive header was directed into the middle of the penalty area.
Shojaei went up for the high ball and the rebound fell to Taremi, who gratefully swept home the chance to put Iran 1-0 ahead and lift the noisy Azadi Stadium crowd.
China looked stunned but they finally gathered themselves with Yu Dabao, who scored in last week’s 1-0 win over South Korea, going close with a similar chance at the near post on 64 minutes.
Defender Mei Fang put another header over from a corner on 78 minutes but despite more encouraging signs from China, Russia 2018 again looks remote.
Earlier, Leicester City striker Shinji Okazaki celebrated his 50th international goal as Japan brushed aside Thailand 4-0 to edge closer to a sixth successive World Cup.
Shinji Kagawa gave the hosts the lead in their Asian group B qualifier with a sharp finish after eight minutes, before Okazaki thundered home a diving header to bring up his half-century in swashbuckling style.
Okazaki’s landmark goal, on his 108th Japan appearance, came on 19 minutes in Saitama and effectively killed the contest.
Yuya Kubo and Maya Yoshida added further goals for the Blue Samurai after the break and Eiji Kawashima saved a late penalty from Adisak Kraisorn to deny rock-bottom Thailand a consolation.
Japan, who won 2-0 in the United Arab Emirates last Thursday, provisionally took top spot with 16 points from seven games.
But Saudi Arabia can move back above them on goal difference with victory over Iraq in Jeddah later on Tuesday.
“I’m incredibly happy to get that goal,” Okazaki said. “I hadn’t scored for a while so it was a relief. Hopefully I can keep on scoring goals for Japan.”
“We’re not at the World Cup yet,” he added. “We have to make sure we keep taking our chances and win our remaining games.”
Australia, the reigning Asian champions, are three points behind Japan with three matches left after beating the Emirates 2-0 at home.
The top two teams from each group qualify automatically for next year’s World Cup in Russia.
Japan coach Vahid Halilhodzic refused to get carried away after a great week for his side.
“I have to congratulate the players on two super victories,” said the Franco-Bosnian.
“It wasn’t an easy game today and they gave us a few problems but we produced an effective performance. We scored four lovely goals, which helps our cause as goal difference could prove to be crucial,” he added.
“But we have put ourselves in a good position to qualify for the World Cup with three big games left.”