China hold Australia but face uphill task to reach World Cup

Mitchell Duke of Australia celebrates with teammates after scoring their side's first goal during the FIFA World Cup Asian Qualifier final round Group B match between China and Australia at Sharjah Stadium on November 16, 2021 in Sharjah, United Arab Emirates.

China are on the brink of suffering more World Cup heartache despite clinching an impressive 1-1 draw with Australia on Tuesday in qualifying for next year's football showpiece in Qatar.

A 38th-minute strike by Mitchell Duke appeared to have condemned the global Olympic and economic powerhouse to their fourth defeat in six matches in Group B, but a Wu Lei penalty late on helped them gain a morale-boosting point at the Sharjah Stadium in the United Arab Emirates.

But the Chinese are above only Vietnam with just five points and now face the near-impossible task of clawing their way back in a group that also includes Asian football giants Saudi Arabia and Japan.

Only the top two countries from each of the two groups will book an automatic ticket for the 2022 World Cup, with the possibility of a fifth securing a spot through a play-off involving the third-placed teams.

China have qualified for the finals of the World Cup only once, in 2002, where they bowed out in the group stage after losing all their three matches.

But since then they have struggled at the global stage despite their oft-stated footballing ambitions, having spent billions of dollars to develop their domestic structure and luring an array of international stars to play in their leagues.

Earlier, Saudi Arabia edged out plucky Vietnam 1-0 in Hanoi for their fifth win in six matches to go five points clear of Australia and put one foot in the finals.

Saleh al-Shehri scored the only goal of the match with a 31st-minute header, with the ball just crossing the line despite Vietnamese goalkeeper Bui Tan Truong's efforts to stop it.

Al-Shehri was also guilty of missing a golden opportunity as early as the fourth minute when he headed wide from close range at the My Dinh National Stadium.

The result means Herve Renard's men stay well on course to qualify for the World Cup for the sixth time, with the possibility of making it as the group winners.

Meanwhile, South Korea eased past Iraq 3-0 and the UAE pipped Lebanon 1-0 in Group A where leaders Iran were playing a late match against Syria.

Lee Jae-sung put the Koreans ahead in Doha in the 33rd minute before Tottenham star Son Heung-min and Jeong Woo-yeong put the outcome beyond doubt.

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