China's Wu Lei in action against Syria's Amro Jeniat in their World Cup qualifying match. Photo: Reuters/Lai Seng Sin
China's Wu Lei in action against Syria's Amro Jeniat in their World Cup qualifying match. Photo: Reuters/Lai Seng Sin

Ahmad Al Salih’s late strike dealt a body blow to China’s faltering quest to reach a second World Cup on Tuesday, as blockaded Qatar kept their slimmest of hopes alive with a shock 3-2 victory over South Korea.

Marcello Lippi’s China were within reach of only their second win in Group A when Al Salih curled home a free-kick in injury time to leave the scores at 2-2.

With only two games left, China face the unlikely prospect of making up six points and four goals in goal-difference to snatch third place and a play-off spot in Group A.

China have only ever reached one World Cup, in 2002, but their national and domestic set-up has been energized by official proclamations about hosting and winning the tournament.

Led by Lippi, who coached Italy to victory in the 2006 World Cup, China recovered from Mahmoud Al Mawas’ first-half penalty through Gao Lin’s spot-kick and Wu Xi’s volley.

China’s Wu Xi (15) celebrates scoring their second goal against Syria at Hang Jebat Stadium in Malaysia. Photo: Reuters/Lai Seng Sin

But Salih, who had complained bitterly that China’s penalty was soft, stepped up in injury time to place his free kick past goalkeeper Zeng Cheng and earn a point for Syria.

Japan were also stunned by a late equalizer from Iraq as they drew 1-1 and failed to establish a cushion from their rivals Saudi Arabia and Australia at the top of Group B.

It was Qatar, however, who were in the spotlight on Tuesday as they took on World Cup regulars South Korea in Doha in the wake of the Arabian Gulf’s most serious political crisis in years following the diplomatic and economic blockade imposed on the country by neighbors Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Bahrain besides Egypt over alleged links to terrorism.

Fans watch the World Cup qualifying match between Qatar and South Korea in Doha. Photo: Reuters/Ibraheem Al Omari

The Qataris, however, appeared calm with Hassan Al Haydos’ double powering them to only their second win in eight matches that took their tally to seven points giving them an outside chance of finishing third in their group.

Only the top two teams from each of Group A and B qualify automatically for next year’s World Cup in Russia, while the third-placed sides go into a play-off series.

Al Haydos put Qatar ahead with a brilliant free-kick in the 25th minute and then helped the 2022 hosts consolidate with a fine pass that saw Akram Afif find the net in the 52nd with a right-footed shot from the right side of the box.

Qatar’s players celebrate a goal. Photo: Reuters/Ibraheem Al Omari

The Koreans, who enjoyed a whopping 63% of the possession, stormed back into the game with goals from Ki Sung-yeung and Hwang Hee-chang in the 62nd and 70th minutes but Qatar had the last laugh when Al Haydos recorded his second goal off an assist from Rodrigo Tabata just four minutes later.

Iraq’s player fights for the ball with Japan’s Wataru Endo (center). Photo: Mehdi Enrahimi/TIMA via Reuters

Earlier in the day, Japan seemed to be cruising to victory in neutral Tehran after Yuya Osako’s first-half goal, before the 1.64 meter  Mahdi Kamil poached the equalizer for Iraq on 73 minutes.

Japan lie just one point ahead of both Saudi Arabia and Australia, their final two opponents in what is shaping up to be a blockbuster finish to Group B.

UAE reprieve

In a night of late equalizers, the United Arab Emirates were the beneficiaries of a stoppage-time strike, which at least postponed their elimination.

The UAE were seconds from dropping out of the running for Russia 2018 when Ali Mabkhout scored from close range in the third minute of added time.

It means UAE are mathematically capable of securing third place in Group B, but like China they need big wins in their last two games and for other results to go their way.

Japan’s Yuya Osako celebrates his goal with teammates in Tehran. Photo: Mehdi Enrahimi/TIMA via Reuters

Japan remain well placed in Group A but they will be kicking themselves after letting victory slip through their fingers against Iraq.

Japan were looking comfortable with 17 minutes left but after Alaa Abdul Zahra’s slalom run into the box the ball bounced to Kamil, who gratefully slammed it home.

So far, Iran are the only Asian side to confirm their place in Russia.