The 16-team 2015 AFC Asian Cup line-up is all but complete, with Iraq and China PR progressing to join 13 other nations after Wednesday's closing qualifying matchday. But the pair, pitted together in the only undecided Group C, did so in contrasting fashion. The Iraqis booked their place at the continental finals through an emphatic 3-1 home victory while China, despite the defeat, narrowly edged Lebanon on goal difference to seal qualification as the best third-placed finishers.
The number of qualified nations now numbers 15 including hosts Australia, last edition's finalists Japan, 2011 third-placed side Korea Republic, and Korea DPR who won the 2012 AFC Challenge Cup. The remaining slot will be decided in May's AFC Challenge Cup, with eight contenders battling for the title and the last qualifying place.
Iraq 3-1 China PR
The 16th meeting between the two nations ended with Iraq extending their lead in the head-to-head record with an eighth triumph against China in neutral United Arab Emirates. Veteran Younis Mahmoud struck twice to give the hosts a two-goal first-half lead, while Ali Adnan put the contest beyond their opponents before the hour mark when he scored from an acute angle.
The scoreline meant Chinese hopes were fast diminishing despite needing just a draw to guarantee progression. With new boss Alain Perrin watching on with obvious concerns, interim coach Fu Bo sent on three young attackers in the second half. His tactical gamble paid off, as substitute Zhang Xizhe pulled one back with a spot-kick. The result saw Iraq seal Group C's second qualifying spot behind leaders Saudi Arabia, who saw off bottom Indonesia 1-0 at home. China, meanwhile were left to sweat on the contest between Thailand and Lebanon in Bangkok.
Thailand 2-5 Lebanon
Lebanon from Group B produced the matchday's biggest win by thrashing hosts Thailand in a 5-2 thriller. Needing not only victory, but also goals to recover a six-goal deficit between themselves and the Chinese, the visitors got off to a perfect start when Mohamad Ghaddar headed his side ahead. Hassan Maatouk doubled the lead on 19 minutes and although Thailand ace-striker Teerasil Dangda pulled one back for the hosts through a penalty, Hassan Ali restored their two-goal cushion just before the break.
The Lebanese began the second half as well as the first, and Maatouk struck his second to further boost their hopes. They were soon level with China on goal difference as Iraq took a 3-0 lead on the other side of the continent, and the Cedars would have progressed by virtue of their superior scoring-tally had the scorelines remained unchanged.
Roda Antar then made it 5-1 but just as Lebanon looked destined for a place at Australia 2015, China scored to put the contest for the third-place finishers on the knife's edge, before Thailand’s Adisak Kraisorn broke Lebanese hearts with a penalty. In the other game, the academic match-up between Australia-bound Iran and Kuwait ended with Team Melli prevailing 3-1 at home.
The other attractions
There were few surprises in Group A, with the qualified pair of Oman and Jordan sealing routine victories against Singapore and Syria respectively. In the process, the Omanis rounded off the campaign with a 3-1 home defeat of the Lions, while the Jordanians edged Syria 2-1 courtesy of Thaer Bawab's brace.
The honours were even among Group D's top-two sides, with ten-man Bahrain holding hosts Qatar to a goalless draw. Malaysia - harbouring slim hopes of their own - defeated hosts Yemen 2-1 with substitute Ahmad Fakri netting the match-winner, but results elsewhere ended the visitors' qualification ambitions.
In Group E, United Arab Emirates saw their unblemished record brought to an end by hosts Uzbekistan with a 1-1 draw. Ismail Al Hammadi put the visitors in front against the run of play, but Igor Sergeev headed home five minutes from time to ensure a share of the spoils. With little but pride to play for Vietnam snatched their first and only points with a 3-1 home win against Hong Kong.
Iraq veteran forward Younis Mahmoud – winner of the best player award at the 2007 AFC Asian Cup - proved his goal-scoring form has not deserted him. Having twice scored the match winning-goal against China in 2014 FIFA World Cup Brazil™ qualifying, the 31-year-old completed a brace as his side inflicted another loss on the same opponents.
6 - Six teams completed their qualifying campaigns undefeated.
What they said
"We played the match with two souls. The first one was on the pitch, and the second was outside it as we were monitoring the other matches in order to see if we can finish as the best third placed team and this is what happened," China coach Alain Perrin
Group A: Oman, Jordan
Group B: Iran, Kuwait
Group C: Saudi Arabia, Iraq, China PR
Group D: Bahrain, Qatar
Group E: United Arab Emirates, Uzbekistan
Australia, Japan, Korea Republic, Korea DPR