China held heavyweights Iran to a gritty 0-0 draw in Shenyang on Tuesday night to lift their hopes in Asian qualifying of reaching just their second World Cup.
Asia’s sleeping giants lacked ambition in the first half but they went for broke in the second spell in a performance that was good enough to earn their first point of the third round in group A.
China have only ever reached one World Cup, in 2002, but qualifying for Russia 2018 would be a significant statement for a country which aims to become a global football power.
“I am satisfied with my players’ performance. We have eight rounds to go, and I hope we see this scenario positively,” said China coach Gao Hongbo.
“It was a very physical game and Iran are a tough opponent, one of the two best teams in the group along with Korea Republic.”
There were encouraging signs in last week’s 3-2 defeat to South Korea, and Iran, Asia’s top-ranked side, would have held few fears for China in front of a red-shirted home crowd.
However, a dire first half was more notable for its fouls than its goalmouth action as both sides struggled to gain momentum on a poor pitch in Shenyang.
Chinese goalkeeper Zeng Cheng and Iranian defender Pejman Montazeri both left the field after separate clashes as the two teams tried to impose themselves physically.
Masoud Shojaei dragged Iran’s best chance wide and Zhang Yuning’s ambitious effort on the turn was China’s nearest sight of goal in the first 45 minutes.
But China attacked with renewed intent after the break and it was a different spectacle in the second half as the game opened up.
Alireza Jahanbakhsh should have netted for Iraq but he blazed a glorious chance over, while Zhang was denied by Morteza Pouraliganji’s desperate block.
Iran goalkeeper Ali Beiranvand smothered at the feet of Wu Lei and Chinese substitute keeper Gu Chao also saved well in the final minute to ensure China’s first point.
“At the beginning we had hoped to take the lead with very aggressive attacking. However, we encountered China’s strong counter-attack. It was a very intensive game, highly competitive,” said Iran coach Carlos Queiroz.
“I’m a bit disappointed about the result because we had expected to win. We were on top in terms of possession and opportunities and I thought we could do enough to take all three points within the 90 minutes.”
In another group A match, South Korea were held to a surprise 0-0 draw by Syria, the match played in Seremban, Malaysia because of conflicts in Syria.
The Koreans, bidding for a ninth consecutive appearance at the World Cup finals, failed to shine against Syria, ranked 57 places below them at 105.
With Son Heung-min returning to England to fight for his place at Tottenham Hotspur, Korea had little sharpness about them up front and had few clear-cut chances.
Ki Sung-yueng and Lee Chung-yong both went close to scoring for South Korea.
South Korea coach Uli Stielike was unhappy with the way Syria tried to slow the game down but said his side had to shoulder the blame for failing to break them down.
“It was tough to deal with the time-wasting,” he said. “But in the end it was our fault for failing to score.”
In group B, Japan scored an important victory over Thailand to steady the ship after their shock 2-1 loss to United Arab Emirates in Saitama last week. Genki Haraguchi (17th minute) and Takuma Asano (75th) got the goals.
“This game was very difficult psychologically,” Kyodo news quoted Japan coach Vahid Halilhodzic as saying. “After our first match we were under so much pressure and we had to get out from under that.”
Saudi Arabia fought back from a goal down to beat Iraq 2-1 thanks to two late penalties from Nawaf Al Abid.
Additional reporting by Reuters