China hopes fizzle out
The night falls quickly in the Middle East. One minute the sun is beating down and the next, a full red moon is rising in the inky sky. China's World Cup dreams have been slowly fading into twilight for the past few weeks but, against Iraq in the neutral city of Doha on Saturday evening, they were all but extinguished thanks to a heartbreaking goal in the 92nd minute.
The goal gave Iraq a 1-0 win, but it was China that needed the three points. Now with two games remaining in the penultimate round of qualification, the team is six points behind the Lions of Mesopotamia and nine behind leaders Jordan. After the match, coach Jose Camacho (and the waiting journalist) talked as if it is all over for China. Realistically, if not quite mathematically, it is.
"Our dreams of Brazil are broken," said one member of the 20-strong Chinese press pack after the match to Camacho. "What do we do next?" It was as much a plea as a question. The Spaniard sat down quietly for the first time all night and smartly dressed in a grey suit, puffed his cheeks. He had not had time to take in what had just happened. "We have lots of work to do," was all he could come up with at such short and painful notice. "In all our games we have had lots of chances in the opposition penalty area but we haven't scored and we have given away goals at the back."
Spain's 2002 World Cup boss had been brought in precisely to stop the national team completing an unwanted hat-trick of eliminations in the penultimate round of qualification. It is ten years and one month since the team clinched its only place at the World Cup and it was symbolic that the man who achieved that feat witnessed the latest Chinese failure. Bora Militunovic took part in an official anniversary celebration in the Middle Kingdom last month and was pestered once for photographs by Chinese fans as soon as he arrived at the small but atmospheric Al Arabi Stadium. Nobody was in the mood after.
Bora and everyone else knew that the imminent Chinese exit is not just down to one goal in Doha - when Younis Mahmoud evoked memories of 2007 as he strode forward into the area to smash an unstoppable shot high into the net. The damage had been done with prior defeats to Jordan in Amman and the recent home loss to Iraq by the same scoreline. After that defeat, fans had waited outside the stadium to shout abuse at players and coach as they boarded the bus.
That meant that China needed to return the favour in Doha - the venue was moved from Iraq because of FIFA's security concerns - and, forced to continuously push up and leave themselves vulnerable at the back to an Iraqi team that was happy to sit back and look for the counter-attack, they struggled.
China had lots of possession but it was Iraq had the chances, wasting two gilt-edged opportunities in quick succession just after the half-hour. Mahmoud broke free of the Chinese backline to bear down on goal but saw his shot well saved by Yang Zhi who then looked on with relief seconds later as an unmarked Alaa Abdul Zarhrah ballooned his shot high into the Qatar sky from close range.
Hao Junmin went the closest for the East Asians, hitting the post with a second-half free-kick as his team started to get desperate. It was inevitable that the men in red would leave more gaps at the back and when Zhang Xinpeng was sent off for chopping down a goalbound Mahmoud, the Iraqi frontline had acres of space. The red card changed the dynamic. As he trotted off to jeers from the Iraqi fans in attendance, the Chinese contingent went quiet for almost the first time. The goal came as no surprise. In truth, a draw wouldn't have been massively better for China but it would at least, allowed dreams to linger for a little while longer.
The question now is how long Camacho will hang around. "Do you have the courage to stay for the next three years," he was asked. "Of course," he replied quickly. "There is a lot to do and lots of things to improve on."
It was a pertinent question and there is more chance of Camacho choosing not to stay on than the Chinese FA pulling the trigger. The press pack is not yet baying for Spanish blood. The former Real Madrid and Benfica boss was appointed just a month before the campaign started and all understand that he has had no time. The message from the Chinese FA upon his appointment was that he was there for the long-term, as much to help nurture the grass-roots as the top of the pyramid. That remains to be seen but the prospect of no meaningful games for three years will not appeal.
Others in Asia have meaningful games in just three days and some are sure to be soon vacating hotseats as some teams have already been eliminated while others have progressed. Also in Group A, Jordan booked their place in the final round of qualification for the first time ever. The team is also the sole Asian owner of a perfect record from the four games and their win over Singapore also confirms the exit of the city state.
Japan secured a place in the final round with the minimum of fuss on a pitch that seemed to have a minimum of grass in Tajikistan. The Asian champions won 4-0 less than a month after beating the same team at home 8-0. The Tajiks also entered the final round after Syria's disqualification and in the two games against the Japanese, it showed. Uzbekistan ensured that it wasn't all doom and gloom for Central Asia by joining the Samurai Blue in the final ten. A 1-0 win over North Korea came from a rare headed goal from South Korea-based Timur Kapadze and booked a final round spot for the fifth successive time.
If it was a bad day for China, it was a terrible one for the North Koreans. It is less than 18 months since the Chollima were making headlines at the 2010 World Cup but now Jong Tae Se's tears are ones of frustration. It has been a dismal campaign for the northerners who have managed to score just the once in four games. The spirit that saw the team to South Africa just hasn't been there and while the Koreans still don't concede many, they score even less than before.
There was better news south of the border as late goals from South Korea ensured a 2-0 win at UAE that virtually puts the 2002 semi-finalists in the final round and definitely eliminates the hosts. In Group B, the real issue is now whether Lebanon or Kuwait will take second place and surprisingly, Lebanon are in the driving seat after a 1-0 win in Kuwait City. With two games remaining, The Cedars are two points clear and host the Koreans on Tuesday while Kuwait have to beat UAE.
If that result was a surprise, Australia's 1-0 loss in Oman was a genuine shock as Paul Le Guen's men produced a well-organised display in Muscat to throw Group D wide-open. The Socceroos are still on the brink of a place in the final stage with nine points, but a single point separates the other three. Saudi Arabia are in second thanks to a 3-0 win over Thailand in Riyadh, Frank Rijkaard's first victory with the team.
There was late drama in Group E as a last-minute equaliser gave Iran a 1-1 draw in Bahrain and preserved Carlos Queiroz's unbeaten record since taking over in the summer. It keeps Iran in first with eight points - the same as Qatar in second. Just as Chinese players were falling to the floor in despair across Doha, Qatar were kicking off against Indonesia, a game that was eventually won 4-0.
Bahrain are now struggling with five points and need to win in Qatar on Tuesday to have any chance. Indonesia's chances have long since been over and soon, it is highly likely that the same will officially be said of China.