BEIJING, March 23 – China’s spending power has taken football by storm but the national team is facing more World Cup heartache heading into a qualifying showdown on Thursday.
Chinese clubs splurged a world-leading 331 million euros ($371 million) on players in the January-February transfer window, and President Xi Jinping is leading a concerted push to turn China into a footballing power.
But Team Dragon will probably have to wait until Qatar 2022 to reach their second World Cup after a stumbling attempt to make the next edition in Russia in 2018.
While Japan, Australia, Iran, Saudi Arabia and even lowly Thailand look likely to join already qualified South Korea and Qatar in the next round, 96th-ranked China’s hopes are hanging by a thread.
China host Maldives on Thursday and unbeaten Qatar on Tuesday, needing to win both games to leapfrog Hong Kong into second place in Group C.
Even then, China have five countries ahead of them in the race to progress as one of the four best-performing second-placed teams, along with the eight group winners.
The matches double as qualifiers for the next Asian Cup, meaning China is likely to have to go through a separate round of games to reach the 2019 tournament in the UAE.
“Frankly speaking, from China’s point of view, the Maldives national team doesn’t represent the slightest threat,” striker Yang Xu told Chinese broadcaster CCTV before the game in Wuhan.
“We have to be confident. And we should seal the game early.”
Interim coach Gao Hongbo leads the team after Frenchman Alain Perrin was shown the door following November’s 0-0 draw with Hong Kong which left China staring at elimination.
– Harry’s hotshots –
Elsewhere former Tottenham Hotspur boss Harry Redknapp will hope to inspire Jordan’s campaign as he begins a two-game stint with the Middle Eastern team.
Al Nashama (The Chivalrous) trail Australia by two points in Group B with two matches left, culminating in Tuesday’s clash with the Asian Cup-holders in Sydney.
“Do I think we will reach the finals? I hope so,” Redknapp said this week, ahead of Thursday’s home game against Bangladesh.
“We will try everything in our power to do that. We will give everything we have to do that.”
Unfancied Thailand, the world number 118, play their final game against Iraq on Thursday needing only a draw to take their place in the third round of qualifying.
Chilly conditions in neutral venue Tehran are among the major concerns for the champions of steamy Southeast Asia, who have drafted in a doctor to help them cope.
“The weather in Tehran is a concern as it is quite cold,” said coach Kiatisuk Senamuang, according to the Asian Football Confederation (AFC) website.
“We have contacted a doctor in Iran already so the boys will be looked after well. We have come many days in advance to help the players get used to the weather here.”
Australia play Tajikistan at home on Thursday before taking on Redknapp’s Jordan next week, while Group A leaders Saudi Arabia host struggling Malaysia this week.
Iran, who top Group D, play bottom side India, and Japan host Afghanistan before a showdown next week with war-wracked Syria, who trail the Blue Samurai by just a point in Group E.