Football: China bracing for 'must-win' clash with Uzbeks

China's football team listens to national anthem behind a Chinese national flag ahead of their 2018 World Cup Qualifying match against Syria.
China's football team listens to national anthem behind a Chinese national flag ahead of their 2018 World Cup Qualifying match against Syria.PHOTO: REUTERS

BEIJING • China's exile from the top international football tournament looks set to continue for at least another six years, unless national team coach Gao Hongbo can deliver a major turnaround in fortunes after a miserable start to the final round of World Cup qualifying.

While moves inspired by President Xi Jinping to turn the country into a dominant player in the sports marketing sector continue apace, and the cash-rich club football scene flourishes, there has been no upturn for the national team.

After three matches out of 10 in the final round of Asian qualification for the 2018 Finals, China have just one point from a goalless draw at home with Iran.

Their opening Group A 3-2 loss to regional powerhouses South Korea might have been expected, but the 1-0 reverse they suffered at the hands of Syria on a rainy night in Xi'an last Thursday was not.

That defeat means today's meeting with Uzbekistan in Tashkent looms as a "must-win" match for China, if they are to force their way back into the reckoning for a top-two spot in the group that carries with it a ticket to Russia.

Iran and South Korea occupy those spots on seven points, followed by Uzbekistan (six) and Syria (four) with China languishing in fifth place with their solitary point.

There is also the possibility of securing a World Cup berth via two play-offs by finishing third, and China look almost certain to be vying with the Uzbeks for that spot.

"We have only lost two games out of total of 10, which means we still have our chance of qualifying," said Gao, who returned for a second stint as coach in February after Frenchman Alain Perrin's sacking.

"It is not true that we are losing hope after losing two matches. Our experience tells us that as long as we fight until the last second, we will have opportunities.

"We are very lucky to reach this phase, and we have to give our appreciation to all our supporters. To be frank, we are among the weaker sides among the 12 teams. In the Syria game, we wanted three points so badly, but we weren't able to achieve it."

REUTERS

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 11, 2016, with the headline 'China bracing for 'must-win' clash with Uzbeks'. Print Edition | Subscribe