New China football coach warns of changes after scare
China manager Alain Perrin (R) talks to a player at a training session in Qingyuan, China's Guangdong province on February 28, 2014
China had been expected to go through with ease in Wednesday's final qualifiers but in the event, they needed a late penalty from Zhang Xizhe to scramble home on goal difference.
The 3-1 defeat to Iraq made for a chastening start for the newly hired Perrin, whose team barely avoided missing out on the Asian Cup for the first time since the 1970s.
China grabbed the final qualifying spot for the best third-placed team by a whisker as rivals Lebanon beat Thailand 5-2 to overcome a deficit of three points and finish just one goal behind on goal difference.
Perrin said China were so distracted by events elsewhere on a frenetic final night of qualifying that it was as if they were playing the match in Sharjah "with two souls".
"The first one was on the pitch and the second was outside it as we were monitoring the other results of the other matches in order to see if we can finish as the best third-placed team in the qualifiers, and this is what happened," said the Frenchman, according to the Asian Football Confederation (AFC) website.
"Iraq controlled the first half and they scored two goals while we were the better side in the second period, we pulled a goal back and could have scored more. We must now work more and do some changes for a better future."
Perrin now has nearly a year to improve a national team which still struggles to impress, despite China's growing clout at club level after Guangzhou Evergrande won last year's AFC Champions League.
The well-travelled coach, whose CV includes stints at Lyon, Marseille, Portsmouth and the Middle East, was China's surprise choice last week after Juan Antonio Camacho was sacked in June.
China, who won only two of their six qualifiers, will have their work cut out at next year's tournament in Australia with heavy-duty competition in the form of the hosts, defending champions Japan and South Korea.
Iran, Saudi Arabia, Oman, Jordan, Bahrain and UAE all finished qualifying unbeaten, and Uzbekistan are another strong team in what promises to be a competitive Asian Cup.
Former champions Iraq will also be on a high after two goals from Younis Mahmoud -- their hero in the 2007 final -- helped them leapfrog visitors China into second place in Group C.
"We won with a big result and I was confident that we will qualify because we had fighting players who managed to beat a strong opponent thanks to their good experience," said Iraq coach Hakeem Shakir, according to the AFC site.