China are on the brink of suffering more World Cup heartache despite clinching an impressive 1-1 draw with Australia on Tuesday in qualifying for next year’s football showpiece in Qatar.
A 38th-minute strike by Mitchell Duke appeared to have condemned the global Olympic and economic powerhouse to their fourth defeat in six matches in Group B, but a Wu Lei penalty late on helped them gain a morale-boosting point at the Sharjah Stadium in the United Arab Emirates.
But the Chinese are above only Vietnam with just five points and now face the near-impossible task of clawing their way back in a group that also includes Asian football giants Saudi Arabia and Japan.
Only the top two countries from each of the two groups will book an automatic ticket for the 2022 World Cup, with the possibility of a fifth securing a spot through a play-off involving the third-placed teams.
China have qualified for the finals of the World Cup only once, in 2002, where they bowed out in the group stage after losing all their three matches.
But since then they have struggled at the global stage despite their oft-stated footballing ambitions, having spent billions of dollars to develop their domestic structure and luring an array of international stars to play in their leagues.
For Australia, it was their third straight draw on Tuesday and with Japan beating Oman in a late match, they are now third in the standings with plenty at stake in the remaining fixtures.
Earlier, Saudi Arabia edged out plucky Vietnam 1-0 in Hanoi for their fifth win in six matches to go four points clear of Japan and put one foot in the finals.
Saleh al-Shehri scored the only goal of the match with a 31st-minute header, with the ball just crossing the line despite Vietnamese goalkeeper Bui Tan Truong’s efforts to stop it.
Al-Shehri was also guilty of missing a golden opportunity as early as the fourth minute when he headed wide from close range at the My Dinh National Stadium.
The result means Herve Renard’s men stay well on course to qualify for the World Cup for the sixth time, with the possibility of making it as the group winners.
Japan also gave their hopes a shot in the arm with a narrow 1-0 win over Oman that put them above Australia into second place with 12 points.
South Korea see off Iraq
Meanwhile, South Korea eased past Iraq 3-0 and the UAE edged Lebanon 1-0 in Group A where leaders Iran took firm control with a 3-0 drubbing of Syria.
Lee Jae-sung put the Koreans ahead in Doha in the 33rd minute before Tottenham star Son Heung-min and Jeong Woo-yeong put the outcome beyond doubt.
Sardar Azmoun, Ehsan Hajsafi and Ali Gholizadeh scored for Iran who now have 16 points from six games.
South Korea are second on 14 with the UAE occupying third spot on six with their only win in the final phase of qualifying so far.