Asian champions Iraq, down to 10 men for the final 20 minutes, battled to a 1-1 home draw with China in the opening game of the qualifying campaign for the 2010 FIFA World Cup South Africa™. After a scoreless first 45, Iraq, fielding a team based on the squad that won the AFC Asian Cup last year, took the lead through a 50th-minute penalty from Hawar Taher.
However, China, with a team rejigged by newly-installed Serb coach Vladimir Petrovic, hit back with 15 minutes of the game remaining through on-form captain Zheng Zhi, the Charlton Athletic midfielder. The result means that Australia top Group 1 after brushing aside Qatar 3-0 in the section's other game. Only the top two teams progress to the fourth and final round of qualifying for South Africa.
Iraq suffered an early hammer blow when talismanic captain and striker Younis Mahmoud, the top scorer in Asian Cup in July, pulled up injured with just a minute played in the game played on neutral territory at the Al Ahli Stadium in Dubai. Mahmoud, who is expected to be out for three weeks, was replaced by Mustafa Karim, and Iraq remained directionless without the skipper's leadership skills in the opening quarter of the game.
China, whose defence easily dealt with the rudderless attack, had two first-half chances to score. Qu Bu hit a sweet volley from a left-sided cross in the 23rd minute, but Iraqi goalkeeper Noor Hassan was able to deflect it with a foot. The second chance fell to Zhou Haibin, but his header went wide.
For the Iraqis, Mustafa Karim spurned an early chance, while Iranian referee Mohsen Torky also disallowed a 'goal' after Karrar Muhamed took out Chinese goalkeeper Zong Lei as he headed into an empty net from a long through-ball.
However, when Mustafa Karim was brought down in the area, Taher stepped up and sent the keeper the wrong way to send the 15,000 noisy Iraqi fans in the Al Ahli Stadium wild.
China came close to equalising in the 65th minute through a Zheng Zhi free-kick, but Iraqi defender Jasm al-Hamd was ideally placed at the post to scramble away the ball. However, Chinese dreams were revived five minutes later when Nashat Akram, at the centre of a diplomatic row after being refused a work permit to play for Sven-Goran Eriksson's Manchester City, received his marching orders after picking up a second yellow card.
Iraq faced a tough final 20 minutes with China upping the ante in search for an equaliser, which eventually came from the head of Zheng Zhi. The Chinese captain rose high above the Iraqi defence to head home an inch-perfect cross into the left corner with the Iraqi keeper stranded.
China missed a chance to wrap up all three points with one minute of regulation time remaining. Following a swift counter-attack, substitute Du Zhenyu missed what could have been a simple tap-in from Qu Bu cross.