China, helped by a slip-up from North Korea, scraped through to the final phase of World Cup qualifying in Asia yesterday after beating future hosts Qatar 2-0 in a nervy Group C showdown between the continent’s super rich.
While the Qataris could relax having already qualified for the 12-team third round as group winners, China needed to win in Xi’an and hope other results went their way in order to grab one of the four best runners-up spots across the eight groups.
Failure to advance would have been a backward step for a country that has flushed their domestic game with millions of dollars spent on foreign talent and youth academies following a soccer reform plan backed by President Xi Jinping.
Their blushes were spared, however, as Huang Bowen scored in the 58th minute and Wu Lei notched in the dying stages to grab the required win, which, coupled with Jordan’s 5-1 loss to Australia, North Korea’s surprise 3-2 defeat in the Philippines and Oman’s failure to win in Iran, sent them through.
Huang told Xinhua that head coach Gao 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 one percent of hope,” the Guangzhou midfielder said.
Asian champions Australia were involved in the first do-or-die contest of the night in Group B but Tim Cahill scored twice in a comfortable win over Jordan to advance to the third round and also the 2019 Asian Cup in the United Arab Emirates.
Japan also racked up the goals in a 5-0 home rout of Syria, who joined the Samurai Blue in advancing from Group E as one of the best runners-up despite the defeat.