Yu the man: China gets first win over South Korea in 32 years
China beat South Korea for only the second time in 32 attempts to keep hopes alive
It was a do-or-die mission. Lose, and China's hopes of qualifying for the 2018 World Cup in Russia would have been over.
With three defeats and two draws in their previous five matches, not many gave Marcello Lippi's men any chance of beating South Korea in their Asian Football Confederation Group A qualifier yesterday.
But Yu Dabao's superb glancing header in the 34th minute sent a packed Helong Stadium in Changsha, the capital of Hunan province, into raptures as China secured their first win of the final qualifying group and only their second victory over the South Koreans in 32 attempts.
The game was played against the backdrop of high political tensions following Chinese anger over South Korea's deployment of a controversial missile defence system.
In front of a partisan crowd and a heavy security presence of about 10,000 police officers, South Korea were on top early on but they had a warning when Yu forced a smart save from Kwoun Sun Tae near the half-hour.
Ji Dong Won twice brushed the top of the netting before Yu nodded China ahead from a corner - ending a 407-minute goal drought stretching back to their 3-2 defeat by the Koreans in September.
South Korea threw on giant forward Kim Shin Wook for the second half and, as they poured forward in search of an equaliser, both sides began to get chances.
Korean captain Ki Sung Yueng let fly with a rocket of a shot on 65 minutes and Chinese substitute Wu Xi had a curling effort saved at the other end.
On 75 minutes, China's Zeng Cheng saved brilliantly from Ji's close-range header and Hong Jeong Ho saw another attempt cleared off the line as China defended stoutly.
The lone flare-up came when Korea's Hwang Hee Chan lashed out at a prone Yin Hongbo in the final minutes and it was ultimately a deserved win for Lippi's well-marshalled team.
China will now play Iran away next Tuesday with renewed confidence, knowing another victory could put them in the hunt for third place in the group and a play-off berth, while South Korea host Syria.
In Group B, Australia lost ground as they were held to a 1-1 draw by Iraq in Teheran yesterday.
This was a fourth consecutive qualifying stalemate for Ange Postecoglou's side, who had won their opening two group games against Iraq and United Arab Emirates.
Despite defeat in the reverse fixture, Iraq were the better side this time round and were unfortunate to fall behind to a Mathew Leckie header after 39 minutes.
It looked as though the Socceroos would see out the second half and claim a crucial win, but substitute Ahmed Yasin deservedly levelled for the hosts 14 minutes from the end to earn a share of the spoils.
While Australia temporarily move level on points with second-placed Japan, having played a game more, this was a missed opportunity to keep up the pressure at the top as group leaders Saudi Arabia won 3-0 in Thailand.
Victory against UAE back in Sydney next Tuesday will now be crucial if the Socceroos are to secure a top-two spot and qualify automatically for the Finals in Russia. - WIRE SERVICES
- GROUP A: Syria 1 Uzbekistan 0
- GROUP B: Iraq 1 Australia 1, Thailand 0 Saudi Arabia 3.