A win over Saudi Arabia would put China through to their 11th consecutive Asian Cup despite an underwhelming qualifying campaign.
China, others look to join UAE as Asian Cup qualifiers this week
China can put a lacklustre qualifying campaign behind them and write more positive headlines for the national game by clinching their Asian Cup spot in a game against Saudi Arabia Tuesday.
Victory in Xian against the already qualified Saudis – who along with UAE and Bahrain have clinched group victories – would put China into their 11th consecutive Asian Cup, with a game – a tough away fixture against Iraq – to spare.
It would also mark a significant achievement for caretaker manager Fu Bo, who took over after the dismissal of the expensively hired Juan Antonio Camacho.
China are one of six teams who can seal their Australia 2015 berth this week, with Iran, Uzbekistan, Kuwait, Qatar and Oman also hoping to book their tickets.
Chinese football has long suffered both on and off the pitch, with a continually disappointing national team and a major corruption scandal in the domestic league.
However, this month Guangzhou Evergrande won the AFC Champions League, China’s first Asian title in 23 years, in a sign that things are looking up for the cashed-up Chinese.
Progress has been fitful towards Australia 2015, with an away draw against cellar-dwellers Indonesia and a tight home win against Iraq leaving Chinese fans on tenterhooks.
But Friday’s 1-0 win in the home leg against Indonesia was enough to put Fu’s men within sight of one of Group C’s two qualifying spots.
Fu has now led China on a seven-match unbeaten run, but said their finishing must improve if they are to beat the Saudis for the first time since 1997.
“Our team is improving gradually, gaining experiences from big tournaments,” said Fu after the narrow win over Indonesia.
“The Indonesian team was very tough and brought us lots of trouble. We still had the old problem of being dominant in the first half but a bit lost in the second half.
“If we had done well with the counter-attacks in the second half, we would have had more advantages.”
China’s cause may be helped by the fact that the Saudis have already clinched their spot in Australia after a 2-1 victory over Iraq in Dammam last Friday.
Three-time champions Iran could also seal qualification for a 13th consecutive time with an away draw against Lebanon, whom they beat 5-0 at home in their Group B opener.
Lebanon are now locked in a battle for Group B’s second automatic spot with Kuwait, who can go through if they beat Thailand at home and Iran win.
In Group A, Oman will advance if they beat Syria in Tehran. Qatar need just a draw against Malaysia in Group D and 2011 semi-finalists Uzbekistan will progress from Group E if they win in Hong Kong.
Tuesday’s games are the penultimate round of fixtures, with qualifying then going on hold until the final matches in March.
UAE face off with already-eliminated Vietnam on Tuesday night in Abu Dhabi before traveling to Uzbekistan for their final qualifier on March 5. In four qualifying matches they have a 100 percent record.