China’s World Cup dream alive after Wu Lei’s late winner

By Jonathan White
Wu Lei of China celebrates scoring during the Fifa World Cup Qatar 2022 Asian Football Confederation qualification match against Vietnam in Sharjah, the United Arab Emirates. China won 3-2. Photo: Xinhua

China moved off the bottom of the Qatar 2022 qualifying group after securing their first points of the third round with a dramatic late win over Vietnam to keep their slim hopes of a second Fifa World Cup appearance alive.

The match ended 3-2 to the nominal hosts in Sharjah, with the game moved from China to the UAE as the Chinese Football Association chose to play overseas amid the country’s strict Covid-19 regulations.

Espanyol forward Wu Lei bagged a dramatic late winner in the fifth minute of second half stoppage time to hand Li Tie’s side a first win of this final stage of qualifying for next year’s Fifa World Cup in Qatar.

Vietnam’s Nguyen Tien Linh had levelled the scores at 2-2 in the 90th minute before Wu’s late heroics.

“The game is very difficult,” Wu said. “Our team has been from August to now for more than a month. It is very difficult. In a closed state, everyone is under a lot of mental pressure.”

China’s national team – aside from the Spain-based Wu – have been together at a month-long training camp preparing for these qualifiers.

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“This is our home court, but there is no audience. It is indeed a lot of pressure. The result is very good. I shouldn‘t touch the last ball. I think it is not easy,” Wu added.

Coach Li also mentioned the oddity of playing their “home” games overseas, and said that he hoped to play in China soon.

“We have played three games now, two of which we are at home, but in fact we played in a neutral stadium. I hope to return to China as soon as possible and play in stadiums with fans.

Wu Lei shields the ball from Vietnam defenders during their Fifa World Cup Qatar 2022 qualifier in Sharjah, the United Arab Emirates. Photo: Xinhua

“We are very grateful to the Chinese fans who have stayed up all night in front of the TV to cheer for us. We will work hard to make the game better and better.”

It was a tentative first half in Sharjah and goalless at the break before the floodgates opened after the interval.

Beijing Guoan’s Zhang Yuning – who had a goal chalked off for offside in the first half – opened the scoring in the 53rd minute, firing home after Wu had a shot saved. Wu then doubled the lead on 75 minutes to put China in control.

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However, Vietnam – who had also lost their first two matches in this third and final stage of Asian Football Confederation qualifying – were not done.

Ho Tan Tai pulled a goal back on 80 minutes before Nguyen appeared to have secured a share of the spoils, until Wu turned home.

Coach Li Tie was pleased with the match, saying that the first 80 minutes proved China can play football, and then pointing to his players’ attitudes to grab a late winner.

China head coach Li Tie gestures during the Fifa World Cup Qatar 2022 win over Vietnam. Photo: Xinhua

“As I said before the game, no game in the top 12 is easy. For us, if we handle this game better, we may be able to win 2-0, but we make mistakes and it became 2-1, then 2-2,” Li said in the post-match press conference.

“However, the players did not give up, scored at the last minute and won the game. Luck is also on our side,” he added.

China entered the game as the bottom team in the group, pointless after losses to Australia and Japan, and behind Vietnam on goal difference.

Now they sit second bottom, three points above Vietnam and level on points with Japan and Oman.

Above them, Saudi Arabia and Australia kept up their 100 per cent records in their third matches. Australia beat Oman 3-1 at the Khalifa International Stadium in Doha, Qatar, while Saudi Arabia won 1-0 over Japan in Jeddah.

China now travel to Saudi Arabia for Tuesday’s fourth fixture.

Wu Lei is congratulated by his China teammates after scoring against Vietnam. Photo: Xinhua

The top two teams in the group qualify automatically for Qatar 2022 with a play-off spot on offer for third place teams in both groups.

China have qualified once for the Fifa World Cup finals, making their sole appearance at the 2002 World Cup in Japan and South Korea.

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