With a place at the World Cup sealed hours before without even kicking a ball, Saudi Arabia then failed to finish Thursday with a flourish when they were held to a 1-1 draw by China in Sharjah.
The Gulf side had entered the final round’s penultimate match day top of Group B and, by the time they met fifth-placed China at the neutral Sharjah Stadium, had already secured their spot at Qatar 2022.
Australia, in third, fell to Japan earlier in the day in Sydney, the 2-0 reverse Down Under sinking the hosts’ chances of automatic qualification.
So Saudi and Japan were left with the substantially less fraught task of battling to conclude the campaign as group winners. Heading into Tuesday’s finale, it is Japan who sit in pole, one point clear of their Saudi counterparts following the latter's slightly sluggish evening’s work in the Emirates.
Herve Renard’s side were superior for much of the match having taken the lead, finally, during first-half injury time. Captain Salman Al Faraj, back fully fit and once more setting his side’s tempo, curled a wicked corner into the China area, which was met perfectly by Saleh Al Shehri to head home.
Having raced beyond the front post, the Saudi striker did brilliantly to flick the ball right across the six-yard box and inside the opposite upright.
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Until then, Saudi had dominated possession and fired willingly at the China goal; albeit they rarely tested their No 1, Yan Junling. Full-back Yasser Al Shahrani was the greatest culprit, misjudging completely Al Faraj’s raked pass to nod way off target.
To be fair, China did not appear to carry much of a threat although, not long into the second half, they did have the ball in the Saudi net. Zhang Yuning’s celebrations were cut short, however, despite beating goalkeeper Mohammed Al Owais at the second attempt. The forward was correctly judged to have strayed offside.
At the other end, Saudi should really have doubled their advantage on 57 minutes, only for centre-back Ahmed Sharahili to somehow side-foot wide when six yards out. Indeed, it was a defender’s finish.
Then, Salem Al Dawsari almost scored a typically swashbuckling effort, but Junling flung himself across his goal to palm the shot on to the post superbly.
Yet Saudi were made to pay for their profligacy. With nine minutes remaining, Abdulelah Al Amri was deemed to have handled inside his area, leaving Zu Chenjie to place home the resultant penalty confidently.
Saudi could have snatched the win right at the death, but instead had to settle for a point. On to Australia on Tuesday, though, and what is sure to be a celebratory night in Jeddah regardless of the result.