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China on brink of elimination as Zhang Yuning experiment fails against Iran

Iran secured their fifth win in seven qualifying matches and remained unbeaten in the third phase of Asia's qualifying campaign for Russia 2018 with a 1-0 win over China at the Azadi Stadium, leaving Carlos Queiroz's side on the verge of next year's finals.

Mehdi Taremi scored the only goal of the game against a China side buoyed by their victory over South Korea last week, but who now are on the verge of missing out on the finals of the World Cup once again.

China remain in fifth place in the group with just three games remaining as time runs out on their World Cup dream, but Iran surged further ahead and now stand nine points clear of fourth-placed Syria as they look set to book their place at a fifth World Cup.

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Here's three things we learned from the game:

1. Zhang Yuning not ready to lead the attack for China

China have struggled for goals throughout qualifying and Yu Dabao's strike against South Korea last Thursday was only his side's third in six games, with all three coming against the Koreans.

Coach Marcello Lippi opted to give Netherlands-based striker Zhang Yuning the chance to prove his worth by leading the line against the Iranians, but it was an experiment that was only to last 45 minutes.

Zhang, who has struggled for game time at Vitesse Arnhem in the Netherlands this season, was left isolated and rarely showed the ability to hold the ball up or to bring his deeper lying teammates into the game with his back to goal.

Only once did he show he was capable of encouraging his teammates to feed off his own play when, in the 31st minute, he held the ball up before feeding his pass down the left flank for Zhang Xizhe, but the move quickly fizzled out.

Lippi realised the error of his ways by hooking Zhang at halftime, replacing him with Wu Lei and reconfiguring his attacking line-up but, with the Iranians scoring seconds after the restart, and China needing to score, the goal never came.

China striker Zhang Yuning
China striker Zhang Yuning started the game but was taken off at half-time.

2. Iran struggle to turn dominance into goals

There's little doubting Iran's status as Asia's No. 1 team. Not only do they head up the Asian rankings, but Carlos Queiroz's team are on top of their qualifying group for the World Cup finals and are strong favourites now to advance to Russia, ensuring qualification for back-to-back finals for the first time in the country's history.

Queiroz, as is typical of his coaching style, has the Iranians well-drilled, so much so that, even in a game dominated by Team Melli, the Portuguese coach was not shy about pulling young midfielder Saeid Ezatolahi to the sidelines to give him a dressing down for a perceived indiscretion.

However, perhaps the bigger issue for Iran is their inability to make their position of superiority count in terms of goals or in the margin of victory.

Against South Korea in October last year, Iran nullified the threat of Uli Stielike's team, and so they did the same against the Chinese, who were second best throughout the game.

Despite that, though, Iran only managed to pick up a one-goal win, their fourth of the campaign for a team that has only scored six times across the seven games. For arch-pragmatist Queiroz, however, that might be enough, with his defence yet to concede.

3. Goalkeeper Zeng Cheng kept China alive

Throughout the 1-0 win over South Korea and for much of the first half in Tehran, Zeng Cheng kept his team in the game and ensured that the World Cup hopes of Lippi and his side remained on track.

The Guangzhou Evergrande man denied Reza Ghoochannejhad, Mehdi Taremi, Mehdi Mohammadi and Masoud Shojaei over the course of those 45 minutes, much as he almost single-handedly stymied South Korea in the second half in Changsha.

Sadly for Zeng it was one of his errors that was at least in part to blame for Iran scoring the only goal, when he was unable to put a strong enough hand on Taremi's low shot to stop it from trickling over the line.

China's World Cup hopes now looked doomed with just three games remaining and the best they can even dream of now is to finish ahead of Uzbekistan and Syria in the battle for third place. For that to have any chance of becoming a reality, Zeng will need to continue to offer China stability at the back.

Michael Church has written about Asian football for more than 20 years and mainly covers the Chinese game for ESPN FC. Twitter: @michaelrgchurch


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