China will expect to put an unconvincing qualifying campaign behind them and reach their 11th straight Asian Cup in front of new manager Alain Perrin when they play former champions Iraq on Wednesday.
An away draw against lowly Indonesia and defeat to Saudi Arabia have made for a difficult path for China, who sacked highly paid ex-Real Madrid manager Juan Antonio Camacho midway through qualifying.
But the Asian giants – who, despite their size and resources, are ranked just 88th in the world – are in the box seat to progress in the second automatic spot in Group C as qualifying ends.
China lie second behind group winners Saudi Arabia while Iraq, who lifted the trophy in 2007, are two points further back, meaning they need to win on Wednesday in Sharjah to guarantee progression.
However, China can lose the game and still be confident of qualifying as the best-performing third-placed team, with closest challengers Lebanon then needing to beat Thailand by at least six goals.
Only two spots are up for grabs on Wednesday with 13 teams, including UAE, hosts Australia and defending champions Japan, already confirmed and one place reserved for the winners of the AFC Challenge Cup in May.
According to state news agency Xinhua, caretaker boss Fu Bo will take charge of China for the last time with France’s Perrin expected to be watching from the stands.
Perrin was announced as a surprise choice of manager last week, after Guangzhou Evergrande’s Marcello Lippi had been hotly tipped. Lippi later signed a new three-year deal with the Chinese and Asian champions.
Perrin, the well-travelled, 57-year-old former Marseille and Portsmouth coach, arrives with none of the pedigree of the World Cup-winning Lippi. His greatest success was leading Lyon to the French double in 2008.
But after disquiet over the large sums reportedly paid to Camacho, the Chinese Football Association may have wanted a more affordable manager for the Asian Cup and the 2018 World Cup qualifiers.
Perrin will hope that China’s new-found success in the AFC Champions League, after Guangzhou became the competition’s first Chinese winners last year, will start to translate into success on the international stage.
China have only qualified for one World Cup, in 2002, and their last success in regional competition was reaching the Asian Cup final against Japan on home turf in 2004.
Lebanon will also be hoping China beat Iraq and avoid the need to rack up a hatful of goals against Thailand – although it is a feat they are well capable of after winning 5-2 at home last year.
War-wracked Syria also have an outside chance of going through as the best performing third-placed team, but they have to beat Jordan and hope both Iraq and Lebanon lose.
Elsewhere Malaysia and Hong Kong, who like Syria are on four points to Lebanon’s five and Iraq’s six, will also be praying for a miracle when they take on Yemen and Vietnam away.
Iran rounded off their campaign with a 3-2 win over Kuwait late on Monday. Both teams had already qualified.
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