Seoul – Ambitious China are out to prove that reaching the third round of 2018 World Cup qualifying was no fluke when they take on bogey side South Korea on Thursday.
China scraped through thanks to their shock 2-0 win over Qatar and the Philippines’ almighty 3-2 upset of North Korea on the last day of round two.
It means that China, who boast Asia’s most expensive league and whose tycoons are snapping up football assets around the globe, are within shouting distance of the World Cup in Russia.
The top two in each of Asia’s two groups of six will qualify for the World Cup, while the third-placed sides will face each other for the right to play an intercontinental play-off.
Perennial under-achievers China have only ever reached one World Cup, in 2002, but they have set their sights on hosting and even winning the competition.
First they will need to upset the odds against South Korea, who have reached nine World Cups — and have lost just once to China in the past 30 years.
Coach Gao Hongbo said underdogs China were taking heart from their women’s volleyball team, who upset Serbia to win the gold medal at the Rio Olympics.
“Everyone in Korean football thinks that within Chinese football we lack fighting spirit and we give up easily,” Gao said, according to the ESPN FC website.
“But I’m hoping this time we can show an improvement in this area.
“China’s women’s volleyball team won the Olympic gold medal as an underdog in Rio. They fought with solidarity, and realised all of their potential.
“They are the best role model for us, and we have been inspired greatly by them. Now it is our show.”
– China rising –
Some 30,000 Chinese fans are expected at Seoul World Cup Stadium but hosts South Korea will start as strong favourites after they breezed through the second round.
“There are no easy teams in the final round,” warned Korea’s coach Uli Steilike, according to Yonhap news agency. “China have recently pulled up their FIFA rankings and they are a competitive team.”
Asian champions Australia open with a tricky assignment against Iraq in Perth before flying to UAE, where they will play Mahdi Ali’s talented side on Tuesday.
“We kind of pride ourselves on being already prepared for the challenges, then nothing is a surprise,” said coach Ange Postecoglou, according to the Socceroos website.
“We’ve trialled this kind of scenario of playing in Australia and going into the Middle East a couple of days later. We know exactly what works, we know exactly how our players adapt.”
UAE, organisers of the next Asian Cup, also have a globe-trotting schedule as they play Japan in Saitama on Thursday before heading home to face Australia.
Also on Thursday, Iran take on 2022 World Cup hosts Qatar in a heavyweight clash in Tehran.
Thursday’s games kick off a series of home and away fixtures which finishes in September next year.