Australia pegged back by China as World Cup qualifying battle intensifies

Australia have had another stumble on the road to the 2022 World Cup in Qatar, held to a draw by China in their qualifier in Sharjah.

The Socceroos were on track to pick up three vital points thanks to Mitch Duke’s first-half headed finish, but a VAR-assisted penalty award with 20 minutes to go allowed China to snatch a share of the spoils. The result means Australia have now failed to win in their past three qualifiers and are now out of the automatic qualifying spots in Group B, after Japan beat Oman 1-0.

Graham Arnold made two changes from the team which that 0-0 against the group leaders, Saudi Arabia, last Thursday in Sydney, with Milos Degenek replacing the injured Harry Souttar and the in-form Duke handed a start in place of Awer Mabil.

The selection reaped its reward in the 38th minute when Duke got on the end of a Martin Boyle cross to nod home his third goal in the third stage of Asian qualifying. One nearly became two moments later, but the China goalkeeper, Yan Junling, reacted quickly to smother Mathew Leckie at the far post just when the Melbourne City forward was poised to finish Adjin Hrustic’s clever cross.

China, who have struggled throughout this stage of qualifying and were beaten 3-0 when these teams met in September, rarely threatened, but just as Australia looked poised to claim the much-needed win their opponents were handed a lifeline. The Jordanian referee, Adham Makhadmeh, was called over to the pitchside TV monitor by the VAR official to review a potential handball against the midfielder James Jeggo. Makhadmeh decided Jeggo had handled a free-kick and awarded a spot-kick that the Spanish-based Wu Lei coolly converted past Mat Ryan.

Arnold threw on his substitutes including Mabil and the A-League golden boot Jamie Maclaren but it was no to avail as China held out.

“Frustrating, always, when you go one-nil up and then you concede and finish with a draw,” goalscorer Duke told Network Ten after the match. “It was an important game that we needed three points [from] and very frustrating to go away with just the one.”

Saudi Arabia remain on course to win Group B after they extended their unbeaten run with a 1-0 win over last-placed Vietnam. They are five points ahead of the Socceroos and four in front of second-placed Japan.

Australia will aim to return to winning ways when they host Vietnam on 27 January before playing Oman on 1 February.