SEOUL: Marcello Lippi faces his biggest challenge as China coach, needing a win against South Korea to keep alive any hopes of qualifying for Russia 2018.
China has appeared at the World Cup just once — in 2002 when South Korea co-hosted the quadrennial event and reached the semifinals — and is in last place in Group A with just two points from the five games in the third round of Asian qualifying.
Lippi guided Italy to the World Cup title in 2006 and took on the China post last October, facing the improbable task of qualifying. He needs goals from a team that has failed to score in all four games since losing 3-2 to South Korea in Seoul in September.
"We know that the game will be a tough one and we hope that the fans will get behind us," Lippi said of the match at Changsa, China. "We are working hard to compete with South Korea."
A defeat for China would end already-slim hopes of finishing in the top two spots of the six-team group that offer automatic qualification for Russia.
Between 2012 and 2014, Lippi led Guangzhou Evergrande to three Chinese Super League titles as well as the 2013 Asian Champions League crown. He has called up seven players from the club to help him out at the international level.
"Lippi told us that we still have hope," Guangzhou midfielder Huang Bowen said. "We have to win this match to keep our hopes alive."
A win for South Korea, which sits in second spot on 10 points, one behind leader Iran, would help the team in its quest for a ninth successive World Cup appearance and maintain its dominant record in head-to-head meetings with China. In 31 past meetings, China has won just one.
The South Korean team will play in China without key forward Son Heung-min of Tottenham Hotspur, although another English Premier League star, Swansea City's Ki Seung-yeung, has recovered from injury and is available.
"China will obviously move forward aggressively," Ki said. "If we start to move backwards, they will gain confidence."
There are other issues, too. Diplomatic relations between Beijing and Seoul have become strained since South Korea agreed to the deployment of an advanced U.S. anti-missile system. China describes the system as a threat to its national security and has retaliated with a number of measures designed to target its neighbor economically.
"The match against China will probably be our second most pressure-packed match in this qualifying round after Iran," South Korea coach Uli Stielike said. "I will try to make sure our players won't be influenced by the stadium atmosphere or other off-the-field factors."
China has rejected a request by the Korea Football Association (KFA) to allow it to charter a flight from Changsa back to Seoul in order to cut down on travel time ahead of its match against Syria five days later. The KFA has also asked the Asian Football Confederation to protect its players and fans in what will be a 55,000 sold-out stadium.
Elsewhere Thursday, Iran can maintain top spot of Group A with a win in Qatar while Uzbekistan, in third place, faces Syria.
In Group B, just one point separates the top four teams as each prepares for two matches in six days.
Australia is aiming to return to winning ways against Iraq after three successive draws dropped the Socceroos to third place behind leader Saudi Arabia and Japan.
Coach Ange Postecoglou is trusting Australia's record goal scorer Tim Cahill to make a difference when called upon.
"With Timmy, there's no expectations on him to play two 90 minutes of football," Postecoglou said. "It's more about the impact he can make in the two games. He's proved that in the past."
Japan, in second, lost the opening game at home to United Arab Emirates and faces a tricky trip to Al Ain for a return game against the team that sits in fourth, just a point behind.
Coach Vahid Halilhodzic has continued to select Keisuke Honda, one of Japan's biggest stars, despite the fact that the attacker has made few appearances this season for AC Milan.
"Even if Honda isn't playing for his club, the national team needs him," Halilhodzic said. "He is our top striker. Obviously, I would like him to be playing more at Milan but he is not being used because competition for places is so fierce."
Leader Saudi Arabia travels to Bangkok to play last-place Thailand.