China survived an almighty scare to sneak into next years Asian Cup through the backdoor. Needing only a draw to secure a place in the finals, China flirted with disaster before eventually achieving qualification at the neutral venue of Sharjah on Wednesday 5th of March, 2014.
After falling behind 3-0 just before the hour mark, China needed to make up a two-goal swing in order to overcome Lebanon on goal difference. Thankfully, through scoring a penalty and a Thai goal against the Lebanese, China was able to make up the difference and become the best third-placed team during the group stages of qualifying.
There was immense pressure on the Chinese team coming into the match. not only had it lost to Iraq in two of the previous three meetings between the two sides, but it was also the very first match for Alan Perrin in charge of the national team. Having only been appointed in late February, Frenchman Perrin did not have long to prepare his troops for battle, and it showed during the first half. Playing in the late afternoon heat of Sharjah, the Chinese team quickly began to suffer due to the elements.
Iraq opened the scoring in the 23rd minute through talisman Younis Mahmoud, the 2007 Asia Cup winning captain. The striker beat the offside trap to run straight through the heart of the Chinese defence and gently stroke the ball past the helpless goalkeeper Yang Zhi. Iraq doubled its advantage just before the halftime break when Mahmoud put in a rebound after the Chinese keeper had saved a shot from just outside the box. As the teams trudged off for halftime, the contrasting emotions between both sets of players could not be more profound. the Chinese heads were down knowing they had to pull off a miracle in the second half, while the Iraq team was only 45 minutes away from securing qualification.
After coming out for the second half, China showed a renewed sense of urgency. Needing multiple goals to get back into the match, China went on the offensive. However, they paid the ultimate price on 58 minutes when Iraqi central defender Kadhim Ali Adnan found some space wide on the left and managed to poke the ball past goalkeeper Zhi and send the largely pro-Iraqi crowd into raptures. Although Chinas dream of making the finals appeared to be desperate, the team was given a lifeline in the 73rd minute when midfielder Hanchao Yu was taken out in the penalty box. Substitute Xizhe Zhang held his nerve to place the ball just out of the Iraq goalkeepers reach and into the net. However, China was still behind Lebanon on goal difference. Either China needed to score another goal or it needed Thailand to reduce the deficit to Lebanon in Bangkok. Thankfully only three minutes later Thailand scored a second goal to make the score 2-5 to Lebanon, and this result paved the way for China to qualify for the 2015 Asian Cup.
After Japanese referee Yuichi Nishimura blew the full time whistle, both sets of fans celebrated wildly at seeing their nation go through. China did not get the result that it wanted, but in the end that did not matter because results elsewhere went its way. During the post-match interview, Chinese coach Alan Perrin commented that “we played the match with two souls”. As the last country to qualify for the finals, China will need to make significant improvements before the Asian Cup takes place in Australia next January.