China keep World Cup hope alive with Uzbekistan win
China's journey to a possible place at the 2018 World Cup has been an epic rollercoaster spanning three years, three head coaches and no shortage of drama. Having crept through to the final round of qualification and fallen well behind in the running to advance to next summer's tournament, China somehow kept their faint hope of qualification to Moscow alive with a 1-0 victory over Uzbekistan in Wuhan on Thursday.
Dubious though the Gao Lin-converted penalty which gave Team Dragon the winning margin might have been, the result has once more seen fervour run high across the country. So often the focus of ridicule, in taking their World Cup hopes into the final round of games, China's national team have turned football into a rallying point for the country once more.
Should they beat Qatar in Doha on Tuesday and other results go their way, a playoff place with a shot at next summer's World Cup awaits.
"It's a miracle that we even reached this round of qualification," jubilant head coach Marcello Lippi told reporters after China's second win in four games brought them within three points of third place and a playoff spot. "Now as we encounter more difficulties, we have no reason to give up."
It was a message echoed by his players. Rather than speak about the potential of qualification, each player through the mixed zone simply spoke about continuing to fight until the end. If the supporters might be getting carried away, Lippi is ensuring his team are not.
A second competitive victory of Lippi's tenure might not seem like a great feat, but performances have been greatly improved since the former Italy boss' arrival at the helm. A 1-0 defeat in Iran's Azadi Stadium remains the side's only competitive slip-up since his arrival, on what is surely Asian football's toughest stage.
Having rotated and tested numerous players since taking over last November, Lippi returned to his tried and tested formula for this occasion. A record seven players from Guangzhou Evergrande were involved from the start, all of whom Lippi had previously coached at the club level. The familiarity with his coaching demands bore dividends on a night upon which they changed tactical shape on three occasions.
At the heart of the success once more was 37-year-old midfielder Zheng Zhi, the man who has come to epitomise Lippi's demands on the pitch both with club and country over recent seasons. Age might be catching up with the former Charlton Athletic player, but he remains China's key player on the biggest of occasions, and on the night of his 97th cap once more covered every blade of grass.
Having narrowly missed out on selection to the 2002 World Cup, the emotion of the night was clear Thursday for Zheng, who knelt and looked away rather than watch Gao convert from the spot. For one of Asian football's best players of a generation, there will be no further chances.
Uzbekistan's players bemoaned the decision of referee Dilan Perera to award China a late penalty after defender Feng Xiaoting's dramatic fall, but the hosts should have taken the lead far earlier in the encounter. Midfielders Wu Lei and Zhang Xizhe, in particular, were guilty of bad first half misses as China squandered several good opportunities.
That nearly proved costly as Uzbekistan upped their game after the break, with only a despairing Zhang Linpeng block denying Igor Sergeev a goal which would surely have ended Chinese hopes of a favourable result. Victory was achieved in the end, but it was far from straightforward.
Tuesday's game, then, becomes the latest in this qualification series to be hyped up as a life-or-death encounter for Lippi's side.
While China would require another minor miracle to advance -- ending a run of six away qualification games without victory, to start -- they will be facing an opponent in Qatar against whom they have achieved recent success.
Reaching a World Cup, or even the playoff round, would not solve Chinese football's major underlying issues, and the aging core of the side will still need renovating sooner rather than later. However, the feel-good factor of this campaign has already brought more interest to the sport in China, more than any government-announced initiative could ever achieve.
In a country desperate for even the faintest sign of footballing success, it has proved all too easy to let imaginations run wild. China must make up a goal-difference deficit Tuesday while also requiring Syria and Uzbekistan to fail to win either of their respective encounters, but such an equation is still enough to give the country hope.
As unlikely as it might be, the Chinese dream lives on for the moment, and Team Dragon's long-suffering supporters are savouring every moment of the ride.
Chris Atkins is based in China and writes for ESPN FC about the Chinese Super League. You can follow him on Twitter @ChrisAtkins_.