China concluded their 2018 World Cup qualifying campaign on Tuesday night with a win but missed out on a playoff berth as other results in the AFC (Asian Football Confederation) group did not go their way.
In order to keep their dim World Cup finals hopes alive, China had needed a win in their game away to Qatar, as well as hoping that both Syria and Uzbekistan would lose their matches. Besides, China also had to make up a minimum four goals in goal difference on Syria to secure a third-place finish in the group, which means a playoff berth. Some fans even calculated that the team's probability of achieving this feat was a mere 0.04 percent.
They dominated the match early on in Doha and squandered several chances, but it was the Qataris who took the lead shortly after halftime. As the desperate Chinese pushed men forward in pursuit of an equalizer, the Qataris nearly doubled their lead in the counterattack but were denied by the heroics of China keeper Zeng Cheng. China's efforts finally paid dividends in the 74th minute as striker Xiao Zhi powered home a Jiang Zhipeng cross from close range and gave the team a glimmer of hope.
That appeared to end after just six minutes as China captain Zheng Zhi was sent off when he fouled Akrim Afif on a Qatar counterattack. But the red card stifled a golden chance for the Qataris to retake the lead and two minutes later, substitute Wu Lei scored to give China a hard-fought win.
But it proved futile as both Syria and Uzbekistan drew their games and finished above China in Group A, which means China had to settle for a fifth-place finish. Syria and Uzbekistan both finished with 13 points, while China had 12.
Coach Marcello Lippi, who took over after China gained just one point in the first four games in the current qualifying round, rued the fact that they failed to make it to Russia next year.
"At the time I took the reins, the team had just earned one point after four matches," the Italian told the post-match press conference. "Under my guidance, we claimed 11 points in six. And we're just one point behind Syria and Uzbekistan."
The lost four points
Lippi singled out two games that he said China should have won. In their home game against Qatar in November, Chinese players hit the woodwork three times but had to settle for a goalless draw. And in their away game with Syria, which was played in Malacca in Malaysia in June, the Syrians equalized in stoppage time when China were leading 2-1.
"We lost four points in these two matches," a regretful Lippi said. "We would have finished runners-up in the group and qualified for Russia 2018."
Having just made it to the World Cup once in 2002, when they lost all three group games without scoring a goal, Chinese soccer has been a source of misery and bitter memories for fans. But this time, most media and fans are speaking highly of the team's performance and are confident about future achievements.
Sports commentator Yan Qiang called it a "successful failure" as he saw the improvement Lippi has brought to the team.
"Lippi is not a god; he cannot bring the team to a totally different level," Yan wrote on his WeChat public account.
"But under his guidance, the Chinese players didn't feel jittery and never gave up even while playing against the tide.
"The Chinese players may not be talented, but they did not give up."
Zhan Jun, a famous soccer commentator, wrote on Sina Weibo, "The points table never lies. China are still not good enough. But their efforts are already impressive for keeping their hopes alive until the final game, having gained only one point in the first four games."
"Everyone wants to play in the World Cup," a fan wrote on Dongqiudi, a popular soccer website.
"It's unfair to blame the players. They have tried their best. It's no shame to miss out on the World Cup. Even the Netherlands are still struggling for a playoff berth!"