The unlikely series of events that could see China’s soccer team pull off a World Cup qualification miracle (with a possible final showdown against the USA)
Narrow win over Uzbekistan keeps faint, faint hopes alive – but the road to Russia is still far from smooth
It took the dodgiest of dodgy penalties in the 87th minute, but China’s late 1-0 win over Uzbekistan in Wuhan on Thursday night means they still have hope – albeit vanishingly slim – of qualifying for the World Cup in Russia next year.
That looked impossible after they opened their campaign with one point from their first four games, including a humiliating home defeat by war-torn Syria.
Italian World Cup winner Marcello Lippi took over at that point and has steadied the ship, to the point where his team could – at least in theory – still sneak a place in the World Cup.
“I always tell my players. When there is still a theoretical chance, we have no reason to give up. We should make every efforts to achieve it. Now, it is the same attitude for us to play in the last match [away against Qatar],” Xinhua quoted Lippi as saying after the match.
With one game to go in group A, here’s China’s (highly unlikely) road to Russia:
Step 1: Beat Qatar in Doha
China must first beat the worst team in the group to have any chance at all. They only drew 0-0 in China, and lost 1-0 in Doha in the previous round of qualifying, when the teams were also in the same group, so it would be no surprise if hopes are extinguished here.
Step 2: Anxiously watch television
As China come off the field at the Khalifa International Stadium, Iran’s home game against Syria will be underway and South Korea will be warming up for their match in Uzbekistan.
China need Iran and Korea to win – preferably by hefty margins – in order to have any chance of finishing third in the group and securing a play-off place.
If China, Iran and Korea win, then China, Syria and Uzbekistan will all have 12 points. But China’s goal difference (-3) is currently worse than Syria’s (+1) and Uzbekistan’s (-1), so China really need Syria and Uzbekistan to be thumped.
Group leaders Iran haven’t lost a game or conceded a goal and have won all their matches at home, so should beat third-place Syria – but with first place in the group and qualification already assured, they might take their foot off the gas. Syria could seal the second automatic qualification place with a win.
South Korea have lost all of their away games and Uzbekistan could pip them into second with a win so will surely be going all-out for victory in Tashkent. Apart from a 1-0 defeat to Iran, Uzbekistan have won all their home games without conceding a goal, so this match seems likely to end China’s hopes.
Steps 3 and 4: Somehow win not one, but two, play-off matches
In the unlikely event step two all goes China’s way and they snatch third place at the death, there will still be two extremely tough tasks ahead.
The two third-place teams from Asia will contest a home-and-away play-off to go through to an intercontinental showdown against the fourth-place finisher from North and Central America and the Caribbean.
With one game to go, Australia, Saudi Arabia or United Arab Emirates could finish third in Asia’s other group.
And if China beat them, they would then have to beat Concacaf’s fourth-best.
With two games to go, that is currently Panama, though that picture might have changed by next week when the remaining matches have been played.
Intriguingly, as it stands the USA are only a point ahead of Panama – leaving open a slim but tantalising possibility of a World Cup showdown between the two world superpowers.