Gao Lin was the hero for China with a late penalty to seal a nervy 1-0 win over Uzbekistan to keep their faint World Cup hopes just about alive Thursday.
Hosts China needed to win the penultimate group-phase clash to stay in the hunt for a play-off spot for Russia 2018 and Gao stepped up with just six minutes left to grab victory.
Marcello Lippi’s men head to Qatar on Tuesday for their final must-win match and will hope other results go their way so they can grab an unlikely third-place play-off spot in Group A.
It was a bitter, late blow for Uzbekistan, who are chasing their first World Cup appearance.
But they too are still in the reckoning as Group A goes down to Tuesday’s final round of matches when they welcome South Korea to Tashkent.
Roared on by a capacity 55,000 home crowd desperate to see China stay in contention for just their second World Cup finals appearance, Lippi’s side dominated an uneventful first half.
The hosts should have gone ahead inside five minutes in Wuhan, but attacking midfielder Wu Lei — dubbed the “Chinese Maradona” — scuffed his close-range shot wide.
Shanghai SIPG star Wu was a constant threat, blazing off target and then just failing to latch onto a tantalising through ball.
The Uzbeks were a rare attacking force, but the few times they did get the ball into the home box it sparked panic in China’s shaky-looking defence.
The best chance of the first half came on 37 minutes and again it was the home side who wasted a golden opportunity when Zhang Xizhe skipped through the visitors’ defence.
But the Beijing Guoan midfielder fired too close to Ignatiy Nesterov and the Uzbek goalkeeper smothered the chance.
Zhang and Wu held their heads in their hands.
Knowing that the draw was similarly of little use to them in their bid to reach Russia, Uzbekistan emerged for the second half with more intent.
And they had their first real opportunity of game 10 minutes into the second period when veteran Server Djeparov shot wildly over from around the penalty spot.
Moments later they went close again when China’s goalkeeper Zeng Cheng made a meal of a corner.
China’s defence was creaking alarmingly and their miniscule hopes of World Cup qualification ebbing away.
Nesterov was then busy twice denying the hosts in quick succession as the game finally sparked to life.
Time was running out on China, until Gao held his nerve from the spot to send the home crowd wild.