Nerve-jangling late drama as controversial penalty decision keeps China in World Cup hunt
China’s faint hopes of qualifying for Russia alive as they score with a late penalty against Uzbekistan, as Japan seal their place with 2-0 win over Australia
Gao Lin was the hero for China with a late penalty to seal a nervy 1-0 win over Uzbekistan to keep their faint World Cup hopes just about alive on Thursday night.
Hosts China needed to win the penultimate group-phase clash to stay in the hunt for a play-off spot for Russia 2018 and Gao stepped up with just six minutes left to grab victory.
Marcello Lippi’s men head to Qatar on Tuesday for their final must-win match and will hope other results go their way so they can grab an unlikely third-place play-off spot in group A.
It was a bitter, late blow for Uzbekistan, who are chasing their first World Cup appearance.
But they too are still in the reckoning as group A goes down to Tuesday’s final round of matches when they welcome South Korea to Tashkent.
Roared on by a capacity 55,000 home crowd desperate to see China stay in contention for just their second World Cup finals appearance, Lippi’s side dominated an uneventful first half.
The hosts should have gone ahead inside five minutes in Wuhan, but attacking midfielder Wu Lei – dubbed the “Chinese Maradona” – scuffed his close-range shot wide.
Shanghai SIPG star Wu was a constant threat, blazing off target and then just failing to latch onto a tantalising through ball.
The Uzbeks were a rare attacking force, but the few times they did get the ball into the home box it sparked panic in China’s shaky-looking defence.
The best chance of the first half came on 37 minutes and again it was the home side who wasted a golden opportunity when Zhang Xizhe skipped through the visitors’ defence.
But the Beijing Guoan midfielder fired too close to Ignatiy Nesterov and the Uzbek goalkeeper smothered the chance.
Zhang and Wu held their heads in their hands.
Knowing that the draw was similarly of little use to them in their bid to reach Russia, Uzbekistan emerged for the second half with more intent.
And they had their first real opportunity of game 10 minutes into the second period when veteran Server Djeparov shot wildly over from around the penalty spot.
Moments later they went close again when China’s goalkeeper Zeng Cheng made a meal of a corner.
China’s defence was creaking alarmingly and their minuscule hopes of World Cup qualification ebbing away.
Nesterov was then busy twice denying the hosts in quick succession as the game finally sparked to life.
Time was running out on China, until Gao held his nerve from the spot to send the home crowd wild.
Qatar, who will host the 2022 World Cup finals, failed to qualify for 2018 edition of the tournament after a 3-1 loss to Syria in their penultimate Asian group A qualifier in Malaysia.
The Qataris, who have never played at a World Cup finals, needed to win both of their remaining qualifiers to have any chance of making it to Russia next year.
Meanwhile, the future looks bright for Japan’s national soccer team.
Two of the country’s youngest players scored on Thursday as Japan secured a sixth straight World Cup berth by beating Australia 2-0.
“We may be young, but it’s clear we need to step up now,” said Takuma Asano, who scored the first goal. “The coach has shown a lot of confidence in us and we need to live up to the expectations.”
Asano, a 22-year-old forward who plays for German club Stuttgart, has won the confidence of Japan coach Vahid Halilhodzic with his sleek play and scored in the 41st minute.
Yusuke Ideguchi, who is only 21, added the second in the 83rd with his first goal for the national team.
Ideguchi, who beat several Australia defenders before sending a right-foot shot to the top corner, was Japan’s most impressive player.
“The coach decided to play me on this big stage and so I came into the match determined to deliver results and that led to the goal,” the Gamba Osaka midfielder said. “There is still a long way to go until next year’s World Cup so I want to continue to improve so that I keep getting picked.”
Halilhodzic hasn’t given up on his veteran players, but it’s clear he is moving in a new direction as Japan looks to improve on past World Cup performances.
Keisuke Honda remained on the bench for Thursday’s match while Leicester forward Shinji Okazaki came on late with the result secure. Before Thursday, Japan had never beaten Australia in World Cup qualifying, losing twice and drawing five times.
Agence France-Presse, Associated Press