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 By John Duerden

Gao Hongbo steps down as China's World Cup dream all but over

On Tuesday, China became the second Asian nation -- after Qatar -- to lose their coach in the final round of qualification for the 2018 World Cup. More will surely follow.

Dreams of Russia are as good as over for China. While it was obvious that this day would come at some point in the last stage though it is disappointing that it came so soon. Team Dragon has just one point from the first four games in Group A and are already eight points off the top two spots that bring automatic qualification.

It is not going to happen and coach Gao Hongbo acknowledged as much by resigning after the 2-0 loss to Uzbekistan on Tuesday.

"As a result of this defeat, I bring an end to my time in charge of the China national team," said Gao. "I want to thank to all the fans and media which supported us during the games. I hope the China national team will be better in the future..."

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Don't weep too much for Gao. He had his misgivings about taking the job earlier this year -- initially as an interim boss -- after Alain Perrin was fired.

At the end of the previous round of qualification in March, when China squeezed through to this, the final round, Gao said in Xi'an that it may be a good idea to bring in a foreign coach to help the country try to get to the World Cup.

None of the 1.3 billion in the country demand such an outcome. Despite the massive investment in the domestic game that has seen the Chinese Super League becoming one of the most-talked about in the world, it was always going to take time for national team standards to rise. Russia is one step too soon.

The first two games brought creditable results: a 3-2 loss in South Korea and a goalless draw at home to Iran. Then things got worse with a 1-0 home defeat to Syria and protests by fans outside the stadium. The subsequent 2-0 loss in Uzbekistan flattered China who barely had a shot on goal.

The question now is whether the Chinese Football Association look inside or out for the replacement. It is possible that, as is common in the Chinese Super League, there will be a local interim coach until a foreigner is appointed. The question is when will that happen.

After November's clash with Qatar, there will be four months before the next game. A new man appointed by the end of 2016 would have two years to get to prepare for the 2019 Asian Cup and then start qualification for the next World Cup.

China coach Gao Hongbo
Coach Gao Hongbo resigned after China's 1-0 loss to Uzbekistan on Tuesday.

Regardless, it is a familiar failing from the team, a familiar feeling for Chinese fans and a familiar task for the Chinese FA.

The coaches of Japan and South Korea are also feeling the pressure.

Australia and Japan drew 1-1 draw in Melbourne. It was not a vintage performance from either team but again under coach Vahid Halilhodzic, Japan struggled to show the sort of slick passing game that has been their hallmark for years.

The Samurai Blue will also be disappointed to give away a soft penalty early in the second half that was converted by Mile Jedinak to cancel out Genki Haraguchi's early strike.

Japan are third in their group, three points behind leaders Saudi Arabia. Should the Green Falcons win in the Land of the Morning Calm next month, chances of automatic qualification would be slim. There are reports in Tokyo of the Japan FA meeting later this month to evaluate the situation.

Japan celebrate first goal vs. Australia
Japan played out a 1-1 draw against Australia in Melbourne.

South Korea are in a similar position with seven points and a must-not-lose game at home next month to second-placed Uzbekistan.

On Tuesday, the Taeguk Warriors lost 1-0 to Iran in front of almost 100,000 fans at the Azadi Stadium in Tehran.

Sardar Azmoun, a star of Asian football and soon the world, scored goal number 16 in his 22nd game for his country. It was a fine and instinctive finish in the first half and the victory was well-earned by a tactically disciplined and hard-working Iranian team.

Korea lacked communication and understanding in defence and any kind of ideas going forward. The only positive for the visitors was that Iran scored only once.

Iran boss Carlos Queiroz is aiming to take Iran to back-to-back World Cups for the first time in the nation's history. There is now a very good chance of that happening. The team has yet to concede a goal.

Uli Stielike was not only tactically outclassed by his counterpart in Tehran, he then blamed the lack of talent available for the defeat -- in part at least. Such comments are not going down well in Seoul. The German, appointed two years ago, has been criticised of late. He can expect much more of the same.

Bert Van Marwijk had been Korea's first choice before appointing Stielike in 2014. The Dutchman instead went to Saudi Arabia and now the team sit two points above Australia at the top of Group B.

On Tuesday, the Green Falcons dismissed rivals United Arab Emirates with a 3-0 scoreline in Jeddah. All the goals came in the last 20 minutes but that just made the win all the more delicious.

Saudi Arabia are hitting form at the right time and should they win in Japan, still quite a big task despite recent results, then Saudi Arabia will be well on their way to a first World Cup appearance since 2006.

Thailand sit on bottom of Group B after a fourth straight loss, a 4-0 defeat to Iraq while Qatar climbed above China in Group A thanks to a 1-0 win over Syria in Doha.

Asian expert John Duerden is the author of Lions and Tigers: Story of Football in Singapore and Malaysia.Twitter: @JohnnyDuerden.

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