Penalty spares China's blushes in Asian Cup
Ahmed Yaseen Gheni (L) of Iraq vies for the ball against Feng Xiaoting of China during their match in Sharjah, on March 5, 2014 - by Marwan Naamani
The perennial under-achievers looked set to miss out on reaching an 11th successive Asian Cup as they went three goals down and rivals Lebanon plundered a fifth goal against Thailand in Group B.
As they stood, China were set to miss out on a berth as the best third-placed team in all the groups, despite starting the evening three points ahead of Lebanon and with a superior goal difference.
But deep into the second half, Thailand’s Adisak Kraisorn scored in Bangkok to make it 5-2, before Zhang Xizhe slotted the crucial penalty in Sharjah that took China to the 2015 tournament in Australia.
The dramatic turn of events, played out within minutes of each other but thousands of miles apart, will have left China’s new coach Alain Perrin in no doubt about the size of his task.
While China heaved a sigh of relief, former champions Iraq were left to celebrate leap-frogging China into Group C’s second automatic qualifying spot thanks to two goals from 2007 hero Younis Mahmoud. Saudi Arabia had already clinched the first berth from the group.
Iraq thoroughly dominated China on Wednesday, with Mahmoud, who scored the winner in Iraq’s 1-0 Asian Cup final win against Saudi Arabia seven years ago, finding the target twice in the first half before Ali Adnan scored their third after the break.
Mahmoud, who was adjudged the Most Valuable Player of the 2007 tournament, got his first from close range in the 23rd minute and then finished off a rebound off Chinese goalkeeper Yan Zhi’s body.
Iraq went 3-0 up when Ali Adnan scored from a tight angle in the 57th minute, but China got out of jail in the 73rd when Yu Hanchao was fouled inside the penalty area and Zhang slotted the ball coolly past goalkeeper Jalal Hassan’s outstretched right hand.
In Bangkok meanwhile, Mohamad Ghaddar put Lebanon on their way after just two minutes when left unmarked he headed in from a corner, and Hassan Maatouk doubled their lead when he capitalised on a weak defensive header from Thailand’s goalkeeper.
Teeratep Winothai hit back from the penalty spot but Hassan Ali Saad scored from close range – again taking advantage of slack defending – to make it 3-1 on the stroke of half-time.
When Maatouk smashed home his second on 46 minutes, and with China trailing against Iraq, Lebanon were within sight of the six-goal swing they needed to reach the Asian Cup.
And there were celebrations on the bench when captain Roda Antar swept the ball home to make it 5-1 – enough to put Lebanon through.
But Adisak doused Lebanon’s hopes when he got Thailand’s second on 76 minutes, around the same time China’s Zhang stepped up to bury his crucial spot-kick in Sharjah.
Malaysia beat Yemen 2-1 away in Group D but their faint hopes of qualifying as the best third-placed team were ended by the victories for Iraq and Lebanon.
Hong Kong and Syria also had their flickering ambitions extinguished when they lost 3-1 to Vietnam and 2-1 to Jordan respectively.
In Doha, Bahrain and Qatar played out a goalless draw in a match with nothing at stake as both teams had already qualified for next year’s tournament.
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