China 2014 World Cup hinges on Iraq match
China must beat Iraq in Asian World Cup qualifying at Qatar on Friday or risk blowing its chances of appearing at Brazil in 2014.
China has lost two of three games so far in Group A - one of five groups in the penultimate round of qualifying - and already sits six points behind leader Jordan and three behind Iraq. Only the top two teams in each four-team group advances to the fourth round.
Iraq, coached by Brazilian great Zico, won 1-0 at Shenzhen last month, and despite being forced by FIFA to play in Doha due to security concerns at home, will move six points clear of China with a win with just two games remaining.
Since its first-ever appearance at the World Cup in 2002, China has been eliminated at the penultimate stage of qualification for both the 2006 and 2010 tournaments.
Spanish coach Jose Camacho was hired in August to end that dismal run, but already the pressure is on the former Real Madrid man. After the defeat at home to Iraq last month, more than a thousand fans protested outside the stadium and shouted abuse at the players and coach as they boarded the team bus.
Camacho has been defended by veteran player Li Weifeng.
''I've said it before. It's not the head coach that goes out and kicks the ball,'' Li said on China's official website. ''It's the job of each and every player. It's our job. So we need the media and the fans to give our new head coach enough time and to be patient with him. He has to be given enough time to rebuild the team.''
Another veteran of the disappointed 2006 and 2010 qualification campaigns is Zheng Zhi. The midfielder, who has played in the English and Scottish Premier Leagues, has not given up hope.
''We were so eager to win that we last the last game. We must trust each other.'' Zhi said. ''But it is too premature to write us off as there are still three games remaining. Iraq won at our home so why can't we avenge the defeat by beating them at Doha.''
If China draws against Iraq, then Jordan will book its place in the final round of qualification for the first time in its history, provided it defeats or draws with bottom team Singapore in Amman.
After Jordan, Australia is the only other team with maximum points and will book its place in the next stage with a win at Oman. Oman is currently bottom of Group D with no points and could be eliminated with a defeat.
Former Leeds United and Liverpool star Harry Kewell returns to the Australian lineup for the first time since March and the first time since joining A-League team Melbourne Victory.
''I'm delighted to be back for my country,'' Kewell said. ''It's always been a massive thing for me during my career and nothing has changed. I have belief in myself and while I'm really happy to have got another call, if I'm honest I know I can still perform at the top level, whether it's for my club or for Australia.''
One of the most compelling matches in Group D promises to be third-placed Saudi Arabia vs. second-placed Thailand at Riyadh.
Saudi Arabia, under former Netherlands and Barcelona coach Frank Rijkaard, has yet to win any of its three games but will leap above Thailand with a victory. The two teams played out a scoreless draw last month in Bangkok.
In Group B, leader South Korea will all but confirm its place in the next stage if it defeats the United Arab Emirates in Dubai. The host is still looking for its first points.
Korea striker Park Chu-young may be struggling for playing time with Arsenal in England, but has scored seven goals in his last four national team appearances.
In the group's other game, whichever team emerges victorious from the meeting between Kuwait and Lebanon will take control of second spot.
In Group C, like South Korea, Japan has seven points and is expected to win at bottom-placed team Tajikistan, even without European-based stars Keisuke Honda and Yuto Nagatomo.
Alberto Zaccheroni's men defeated the Central Asian team 8-0 in Osaka last month and will confirm its place in the final stage with a win only if Uzbekistan defeats North Korea in Tashkent.
North Korea is in trouble with just three points from the opening three games. A draw against Uzbekistan in Tashkent would keep the North Koreans still in the race mathematically, but it realistically needs to win.
Uzbekistan won 1-0 at Pyongyang last month to move level on points with Japan. If the top two win, both will progress.
Iran is in control of Group E after the recent 6-0 thrashing of Bahrain at Tehran. Bahrain, in third and a point behind Qatar, needs to get something from the return match in Manama.
Qatar is expected to defeat bottom team Indonesia at home.