Late drama keeps China in World Cup hunt as Japan seals spot

AFP
Marcello Lippi's men head to Qatar for their final must-win match and will hope other results go their way so they can grab an unlikely third-place playoff spot in Group A.
AFP
Xinhua

China's Gao Lin celebrates after scoring the only goal against Uzbekistan from the penalty spot during their 2018 World Cup Asian Group A qualifier in Wuhan, central China's Hubei Province, on August 31, 2017.

Gao Lin was the hero for China with a late penalty to seal a nervy 1-0 win over Uzbekistan to keep its faint World Cup hopes just about alive on Thursday, when Japan sealed its spot for the Russian tournament with a 2-0 win over Australia in Saitama.

Host China needed to win the penultimate group-phase clash to stay in the hunt for a playoff 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 playoff spot in Group A.

It was a bitter, late blow for Uzbekistan, which is chasing its first World Cup appearance.

But it, too, is still in the reckoning as Group A goes down to Tuesday's final round of matches when it welcomes South Korea to Tashkent. South Korea's hopes were hit with a goalless draw with 10-man Iran in Seoul on Thursday.

With Uzbekistan losing in China, the Koreans would have sealed the group's second automatic berth for Russia but could find no way past an impregnable Iran, which has not conceded a goal in 12 straight World Cup qualifiers dating back to November 2015.

Meanwhile, Syria is one victory away from advancing Group A, with an automatic spot in Russia still possible following the war-torn country's 3-1 victory over Qatar in Malaysia. Syria is now third in the six-team group on 12 points, with Iran (21) already having qualified as the top team and the Koreans (14) second. Uzbekistan also has 12 points, with China on 9 and Qatar, which is already out of the reckoning, bottom with 7 points.

In Wuhan, 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, 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 tantalizing 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 defense.

The best chance of the first half came on 37 minutes and again it was the home side which wasted a golden opportunity when Zhang Xizhe skipped through the visitors' defense.

But the Beijing Guo'an 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, the Uzbeks emerged for the second half with more intent.

And they had their first real opportunity of the game 10 minutes into the second period when veteran Server Djeparov shot wildly over from around the penalty spot.

Reuters

Japan's players celebrate qualifying for the 2018 World Cup in Russia following a 2-0 victory over Australia during their Asian Group B qualifier in Saitama on August 31, 2017.

Meal of a corner

Moments later they went close again when China's goalkeeper Zeng Cheng made a meal of a corner.

China's defense was creaking alarmingly and their miniscule 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.

China's only previous appearance at the World Cup finals came when South Korea and Japan hosted the tournament 15 years ago, with Bora Milutinovic's side losing all three of its group games against Costa Rica, Brazil and Turkey.

In Group B, Japan qualified for the World Cup by beating Asian champion Australia 2-0 .

The Japanese, who reached their sixth straight World Cup, got goals from Takuma Asano and Yosuke Ideguchi to improve to 20 points in Group B. Australia can still qualify if it clinches second place.

Yuto Nagatomo set up the first goal in 41st minute, sending a cross into the box that an unmarked Asano calmly side-footed past Australia goalkeeper Mathew Ryan.

"Yuto made a great play to get me the ball," Asano said. "I was thrilled to contribute to the team in such a big game and want to thank the coach for showing confidence in me."

Looking to create more chances, Australia coach Ange Postecoglou sent in Tomi Juric and Tim Cahill in the second half.

Instead, Ideguchi scored another for Japan in the 83rd when he sent an angled shot past the outstretched arms of Ryan for his first goal with the national team.

With 20 points, Japan is four points ahead of Australia and Saudi Arabia. Japan travels to Saudi Arabia for its final group game on September 5. Australia faces last-place Thailand on the same day.

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