China grabbed the final Asian Cup qualifying place in nerve-wracking style on Wednesday, a 3-1 defeat by Iraq good enough to edge out Lebanon by one goal and leave hosts Australia cheering.
China needed to avoid defeat against third-placed Iraq in Sharjah to take the second qualifying spot for next year’s finals in Group C, but they went 3-0 down after an hour and were left looking anxiously at the Group B score between Thailand and Lebanon for help.
Lebanon were leading 5-1 after 63 minutes in Bangkok and were set to join 2007 winners Iraq at the 16-team finals as the best third-placed side across the five groups of four before late drama swung the outcome.
China midfielder Zhang Xizhe converted a 73rd-minute penalty to cut their deficit, moments before Thailand substitute Adisak Kraisorn broke down the right and fired home to make the score 5-2 and send China through with a goal-difference of minus-one, one better than Lebanon’s.
“We played the match with two souls,” China coach Alain Perrin told reporters after his first match in charge. “The first one was on the pitch and the second was outside it, as we were monitoring the results of the other matches. Iraq controlled the first half and they scored two goals, while we were the better side in the second period. We pulled a goal back and could have scored more.”
Talisman Younus Mahmood fired the two first-half goals for Iraq, before Ali Adnan struck a third from a narrow angle.
“I was confident we would qualify because we had fighting players,” Iraq coach Hakeem Shakir said.
Lebanon assistant coach Carlo Gaiby was philosophical after the narrow failure of his side to reach their second finals.
“We missed out by just one goal, but that is football and we cannot do anything about that,” he said.
Australian organizers welcomed Iraq’s qualification, but it was the news that China would compete at an 11th consecutive Asian Cup finals that had them buzzing.
The world’s most populous nation are sure to boost television ratings for the flagship event, while the large number of Chinese in Australia will help ticket sales.
An event in the Chinatown district of Sydney with Chinese community leaders and Asian Cup organizers was quickly scheduled for yesterday morning to “celebrate China and Iraq’s qualification.”
“Of the 2.5 million Australians of Asian heritage, Chinese make up by far the biggest single group with more than 900,000 residents and almost half a million calling NSW [New South Wales] home,” New South Wales Minister for Citizenship and Communities Victor Dominello said in a statement. “I’ve spoken to a lot of members of the Chinese community, who will be delighted their team will play in Australia.”
Holders Japan and South Korea, who finished third last time, had already qualified courtesy of their performances in Qatar four years ago, along with runners-up Australia.
They were joined by Bahrain, Iran, the United Arab Emirates, Oman, Uzbekistan, Qatar, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and Jordan, who made it through the qualifiers, while North Korea booked their spot by winning the AFC Challenge Cup.
The draw for the finals takes place in Sydney on March 26.