Saudi Arabia’s celebrations for reaching the FIFA World Cup for the sixth time in their history were slightly watered down following a 1-1 draw against China at Sharjah Stadium on Thursday.
What was set to be a decisive game on the road to Qatar 2022 turned into a party atmosphere at Sharjah Stadium as the Green Falcons learned of their qualification for the finals regardless of the result following Japan’s 2-0 win over Australia earlier in the day.
Coach Herve Renard’s message to the media before departing Riyadh for the UAE was that his side wanted nothing but first place. But the top spot occupied by Saudi Arabia since October was lost to Japan at the final whistle, with Saudi Arabia’s 20-point tally one less than their rival, but still five clear of Australia whom they face in Jeddah on Tuesday.
Joyous it may have been in the Saudi dressing room going into the game, but there was no complacency on the pitch in the opening period with Renard making five changes to the starting XI who were beaten 2-0 by Japan in the Green Falcons’ most recent qualifiers outing.
Intricate passing, sustained pressure, and an avalanche of missed opportunities for Saudi Arabia was the name of the game, and Renard’s men never looked in danger throughout the 90 minutes.
Applying high pressure early on, Saudi Arabia were presented with their first chance at the quarter-hour mark as attacking midfielder Hattan Bahebri took possession of the ball deep inside the Chinese half and attempted a drilled effort from 25 yards out that passed just wide.
The Al-Shabab midfielder repeated the trick 13 minutes later, getting on the end of a loose headed clearance and rifling from just outside the box, but this time he skied his shot.
One-way traffic at Sharjah Stadium continued and it was the turn of Salem Al-Dawsari to try his luck in the 32nd minute, and his effort from the edge of the penalty area seemed headed goalward were it not for a deflection from teammate Saleh Al-Shehri sending it over the crossbar.
There was a collective roar from the few people in the stadium just before the break in a game being played behind closed doors as Salman Al-Faraj sent an exquisite sliced diagonal ball from the right for marauding left-back Yasser Al-Shahrani.
The pressure finally produced a goal at the stroke of halftime as Al-Faraj’s in-swinging cross from the corner kick found its way to Al-Shehri, who evaded his marker at the near post to guide the ball with a header into the bottom far corner for the opener.
An emphatic opening half gave way to a lackluster second, and the writing was on the wall for Renard’s men after a lapse of concentration from skipper Al-Faraj eight minutes after the restart saw his pass intercepted by Gao Zhunyi, who fed Zhang Yuning to beat Mohammed Al-Owais. But the Chinese celebrations were cut short by the raised flag for offside.
Center-back Ahmad Sharahili was left wondering how he did not get on the scoresheet after a tidy attacking sequence saw right-back Mohammed Al-Burayk cross for Al-Dawsari on the opposite flank and the winger's blocked shot found its way to Al-Shehri who laid it off for Sharahili. The defender’s first-time left-footed finish passed an inch wide of the Chinese upright.
Midway through the second half, Al-Dawsari embarked on a 50-yard run, beating two opponents before cutting inside and curling a shot from inside the box that could only be stopped by a combination of goalkeeper Yan Junling's outstretched fingertips and the post.
Just as the game looked won, a quick counter-attack for China saw a cross from right-back Gao handled inside the box by defender Abdulelah Al-Amri and Emirati referee Mohammed Abdullah Hassan instantly pointed to the spot.
Zhu Chenjie stepped up and sent goalkeeper Al-Owais the wrong way, the Chinese equalizing with their very first shot on target eight minutes from time.
With not much time to play, a late foray of half-chances at the other end of the pitch produced nothing. Al-Shehri’s overhit effort from six yards out was the closest they came.