China's Yu Dabao (L) celebrates his goal with Wang Yongpo during the 2018 FIFA World Cup Russia qualification match against South Korea in Changsha, central China's Hunan province, March 23, 2017. (Xinhua/Kong Hui)
China's hope to qualify for the 2018 World Cup has been rekindled as Italian coach Marcello Lippi led Team Dragon to a 1-0 home win here on Thursday.
Yu Dabao headed in the Wang Yongpo corner in the 34th minute to give China the first win in six matches at the third phase of the World Cup Asian Zone qualifiers.
"Before the match, we knew the importance to win this match. And we worked hard to get the three points we must get. But it is not enough to win a ticket to World Cup. We need to continue this momentum and win the following matches," said Lippi, who will lead China to visit Iran on March 28.
For Yu, he and his teammates had to fight both the strong opponent and mounting pressure from expectant home fans.
"We were under great pressure before the game and now we have laid a good foundation with the three points," said Yu. "It has always been crucial to grasp whatever chances you have and thank the coach so much for believing in me."
The victory temporarily moved China out of the bottom of the 6-team Group A where Iran stands atop with 11 points from five matches, ahead of South Korea on 10 after six games. Uzbekistan sits in third with nine and Syria is fourth with eight. Qatar lies bottom of group after five matches.
With four games left, China, collecting five points in the provisional fifth place, still has chance to earn a qualification ticket. The top two in Group A and Group B will advance to Russia 2018 directly after a home-and-away round-robin, while the third-place finishers from both groups will have a playoff with the winner going on to face the fourth-placed team from CONCACAF zone for a berth.
"We still have space to improve. In the first half, we played too defensively in front of the opponent's pressure. Yu's goal from Wang's corner was what we trained lots of times in the past week," said Lippi. "It was not our best form and lineup. We can do better in the next match."
China took the lead after 34 minutes when Wang's inward curving corner found Yu at the near post, where the Beijing Guo'an striker glanced a precise header into the bottom-right corner.
Before halftime, Ji Dongwon was the visitor' most dangerous player, who had two shots both narrowly off target.
There were worrying times after the re-start for the host when goalkeeper Zeng Cheng, who was named man of the match after 90 minutes, made several brilliant saves to deny close shots from Ki Sungyueng and Ji Dongwon.
Both sides played open in the last 30 minutes. China threatened the visitor when substitute Wu Xi struck a long shot to force an excellent save from Kwoun Suntae.
Wu Xi then preserved China's lead with a dramatic goal-line clearance, blocking with his chest from a header by Hong Jeongho.
More than 30,000 fans cheered non-stop for their home team in the 95 minutes at He Long Stadium, where China improved their unbeaten record with five wins and four draws since 2005.