Dubai: The AFC Asian Cup nearly served up another surprise on Monday as Kyrgyzstan had China on the ropes before losing 2-1 in their Group C opener in Al Ain.
In the first-ever meeting between the two sides, Kyrgyzstan were ahead in the first half, before China — competing in a record 14th consecutive Asian Cup going all the way back to 1976 — fought back under the watchful eye of coach Marcello Lippi. The former Juventus, Inter Milan and Italy manager is under pressure to deliver a first trophy for a nation with big plans to become a dominant force in football.
The closest they came was as losing finalists in 1984 and 2004, going down to Saudi Arabia and Japan respectively, and have played a record 52 games in the tournament without ever lifting the trophy.
On this showing, China have their work cut out as they struggled to break down their opponents in the afternoon Al Ain sunshine at the Khalifa Bin Zayed Stadium.
China came out of the blocks flying, eager to get three points in the bag. Wu Lei had a shot well stopped by keeper Pavel Matiash early on.
Wu Xi should have found the target with his attempt after 12 minutes when he had a sight of goal, but the scores remained deadlocked as his effort went wide.
Debutants Kyrgyzstan were far from overwhelmed and sent the alarm bells ringing as Farhat Musabekov sent a shot just high and wide from outside the area to remind the Chinese they would not get things all their own way.
The bigger Kyrgyz players were starting to impose themselves on the game as China continued to rely on their pace, all of which meant a lot of stop-start action as both sides looked for an opener before the break.
A nice 1-2 almost found a way behind the Chinese defence on 38 minutes but a heavy cross allowed the favourites to mop up.
If alarm bells were ringing, a klaxon went off when Vitalij Lux found space at the edge of the area thanks to a nodded pass by Musabekov. Lux rifled a left-foot shot home into the bottom right corner to stun the crowd.
With China reeling, it was almost 2-0 when Akhlidin Israilov fired just wide moments after the Chinese picked themselves up and restarted the game.
There must have been a stern half-time talk by Lippi as China roared back, with poor old Matiash putting the ball into his own net from a corner five minutes after the interval.
It was a moment of madness as he clearly could have palmed to safety, instead opting to glove the ball in and under the crossbar.
Still, the Kyrgyz would not lie down and almost retook the lead following a breakaway from an effort from Xi, after 65 minutes, Anton Zemlianukhin’s left-footed effort fizzed past the upright of Yan Jun-ling, leading to some very concerned looks from Lippi in the Chinese dug-out.
A calamitous touch from a backpass on 71 minutes by Matiash — clearly not having his best day — almost allowed Lei in but the keeper was able to scramble clear.
There were huge sighs of relief in the China camp when Yu Dabao put them ahead with little over 12 minutes remaining, rounding Matiash for the winner. Maybe, Lippi was worrying he may follow Thailand coach Milovan Rajevac — whose side had a 4-1 humiliation by India — to the job centre if he did not deliver a victory. Dabao’s strike proved decisive but China — who saw out the match with some questionable time-wasting injuries — will expect much more with tougher tests ahead, including their Group C clash against South Korea in Abu Dhabi on January 16.