Image: Football Soccer – Japan v Syria – World Cup 2018 Qualifier – Saitama Stadium, Saitama, Japan – 29/3/16 Japan’s Makoto Hasebe and Syria’s Hamdi Al Masri in action. REUTERS/Thomas Peter
(Reuters) – China, helped by a slip-up from North Korea, scraped through to the final phase of World Cup qualifying in Asia on Tuesday 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 football 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 Evergrande 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.
“For Syria, this qualification is very great,” Syria coach Fajr Ibrahim was quoted as saying by Kyodo News.
Former Asian champions Iraq were another side to scrape through in second place after they edged Vietnam 1-0 in Tehran to join pool winners Thailand in escaping Group F.
Saudi Arabia drew 1-1 with United Arab Emirates having needed to avoid defeat to ensure they won Group A in a clash between two sides who were guaranteed to advance.
Iran, who qualified for the last World Cup in Brazil, topped Group D after beating runners-up Oman 2-0 in Tehran thanks to a Sardar Azmoun brace, while Uzbekistan advanced from Group H following a 1-0 win over Bahrain.
North Korea would have followed the Uzbeks out of the group and into the third round if they had held on to a 2-1 lead in Manila but the 2010 World Cup finalists crumbled spectacularly, conceding twice in the last six minutes to gift China passage.
China have only ever qualified for one World Cup in 2002 despite the game enjoying widespread popularity in the world’s most populous nation.
The 2002 campaign was also the last time they had reached the final stages of qualifying in Asia.
The draw for the third round, where the 12 teams will be split into two groups and the top two from each advance to Russia 2018, will take place next month.
(Reporting by Patrick Johnston in Singapore; Editing by Toby Davis)
Copyright 2015 Thomson Reuters. Click for Restrictions.