Zheng Zhi’s early own goal ultimately condemned China to a 3-2 defeat to South Korea on Thursday despite a spirited fight-back in their 2018 World Cup qualifier.
China’s talisman became their fall guy as he inadvertently bundled Son Heung-min’s free kick into his own net on 20 minutes at Seoul World Cup Stadium.
Lee Chung-yong and Koo Ja-cheol both scored to pile on the pain for China, but the visitors nearly hauled their way back into it following late strikes from Yu Hai and Hao Junmin.
However, a precious equaliser eluded Gao Hongbo’s men and they start with a defeat as they embark on the year-long final round of qualifying for the 2018 World Cup in Russia.
After Zheng’s own goal, it wasn’t until the 62nd minute that Lee climbed to head South Korea’s second, before Koo slotted their third four minutes later.
Yu’s blistering finish pulled one back for China and when Hao curled in a textbook free kick with 14 minutes on the clock, South Korean nerves were jangling in their group A match.
Watch: South Korea v China
Son, fighting for his place at English club Tottenham Hotspur, was in the thick of it in the early exchanges and he shot wide on 18 minutes.
Two minutes later, Zhang Linpeng was booked for bringing down Oh Jae-suk just outside the box.
South Korea coach Uli Stielike said the tide turned due to the error that let China score their first goal.
“It was a pity Oh Jae-suk made a mistake after playing so well. That was a turning point and things got difficult,” he said.
Chinese coach Gao Hongbo said the game would help his side in their remaining qualifiers.
“We are up against Iran next. They are another strong team with lots of experience,” he explained.
“China lacks experience at the top level so in that sense I believe the Korea match helped a lot.”
Korea next play Syria in group A.
From Son’s free kick, Ji Dong-won’s glancing header went in off Zheng’s shin.
Another Ji header nearly doubled South Korea’s lead shortly afterwards, and the unmarked Lee Chung-yong then missed a great chance when he skied his volley over the bar.
China had little joy until the 28th minute when they had their first clear sight of the Korean goal.
Wu Lei broke down the right before losing his balance and shooting harmlessly wide.
Their best chance of the first half came when Yu intercepted a pass and released Wu one-on-one with goalkeeper Jung Sung-ryong, before the forward again miscued.
China started the second half strongly, but it was South Korea who took control of the game when Ji’s cross picked out Lee for a powerful header and a 2-0 lead.
Koo then converted a fine cross by Son for 3-0, seemingly putting the game out of reach for China.
But Yu and Hao had other ideas, leading a strong rally to make the game far closer than the hosts had bargained for.
South Korea hung on for the narrow victory, with goalkeeper Jung making some crucial saves as the clock ticked down.
In group B matches, the United Arab Emirates surprised Japan 2-1 and Australia beat Iraq 2-0.
Australia scored goals six minutes apart midway through the second half in Perth. Australia’s next match will be a tough one – playing UAE on Tuesday on its home ground in the heat and humidity of Abu Dhabi.
Watch: Australia v Iraq
“This is no surprise, UAE is a very good team, and this is a very difficult group,” Australia coach Ange Postecoglou said when told of UAE’s win moments after the Socceroos beat Iraq.
Australia had 20 shots to Iraq’s six overall and had 72 per cent of possession. “We’ve got this one out of the way, now we need to recover and play again in a few days,” Australia captain Mile Jedinak said.
A month-long training camp in Spain appears to have helped the UAE, while four-time Asian champions Japan struggled to put together a team after some of their players arrived only a few days before Thursday’s match.
Watch: Japan v UAE
Ahmed Khalil scored in the 20th and 54th minutes in Saitama to help his team overcome an early 1-0 deficit against Japan.
An unmarked Keisuke Honda gave Japan a 1-0 lead in the 11th minute from a free kick, but Khalil, the Asian player of the year, equalised nine minutes later. The 25-year-old Khalil scored his second goal from the penalty spot nine minutes into the second half.
Second half goals from Massimo Luongo and Tomi Juric gave Asian champions Australia the win after a frustrating first half.
Also on Thursday, Uzbekistan beat Syria 1-0 in Tashkent, Iran recorded a 2-0 win at home to Qatar and Saudi Arabia edged out Thailand 1-0 in Riyadh.
The top two teams in each group automatically qualify for the 2018 World Cup in Russia.
Agence France-Presse, Reuters, Associated Press