China played Iraq on Friday afternoon in a must-win world Cup qualifying match. It was a disaster as China lost 1-0. Yet, don’t get me wrong, how China played wasn’t a disaster. Even the result itself just reflected a loss to a decent Asian team in Iraq. Instead, the ramifications of the result are what makes it a disaster, because China was effectively knocked out of qualifying. China remains rooted on third place with three points, trailing Jordan by 9 points and Iraq by 6 points with two more games to go. Having lost to Iraq twice, even if China wins both games and Iraq picks up no more points, Iraq will still advance.
China did not play too badly and were not outplayed by any means, at least from what I saw. Due to a time miscalculation, (I thought the game was 15.15 GMT which is 11.15 pm here, but when I tuned in at that time, it was already halftime!) I only watched the whole second half. China were on the attack a lot and defended well, breaking up a lot of plays and shutting down most of Iraq’s changes in the goal area. Substitute, a little guy called Wu Pingfeng, from Guangdong no less!, made several good runs down the left side and made decent passes into the goal area. Hao Junmin made two good free kicks, including one that swerved just beyond the keeper’s outstretched hands and hit the left crossbar. The goalie, Yang Zhi, from Guangzhou, played confidently and made a lot of good saves. Unfortunately though, China weren’t able to prevent Iraq from making a few penetrating runs and towards the end, one such run resulted in an Iraqi heading clear towards goal until defender Zhang Linpeng chopped him down from behind in a deliberate foul. Zhang got redcarded and sent off, sacrificing himself to prevent an almost-certain goal, but this just meant China had to play the last five minutes with ten men. Finally in stoppage time, the death blow came when the Iraqi captain help off Sun Xiang with an NFL-quality stiff arm and fired a shot above the hapless Yang Zhi. Game over.
So again, for the third time in succession, China was eliminated from World Cup qualification in the penultimate group round. What next? Big changes have already been made and by now, Chinese authorities, media and fans are well aware of the need for improvement. As a China fan, all one can do is hope for no rash changes and that China will only improve. And one can also look forward to the new Chinese league season and the new Asian Champions League, which will feature new Chinese powerhouse Guangzhou.