Gao's late winner keeps China in World Cup hunt

Football Soccer - China v Uzbekistan - World Cup 2018 Qualifiers - Wuhan Sports Center Stadium, Wuhan, Hubei province, China - August 31, 2017. Gao Lin of China celebrates after scoring a goal from the penalty spot. REUTERS/Stringer (Reuters)

HONG KONG, August 31 (Reuters) - Gao Lin scored a late penalty to keep alive China's slim hopes of qualifying for next year's World Cup finals with a 1-0 victory against Uzbekistan on Thursday. China's victory courtesy of Gao's 84th-minute spot-kick leaves coach Marcello Lippi's team fifth in Group A and needing victory in Tuesday's final game against Qatar to have a chance of securing their first finals appearance since 2002. Only the top two teams in the group are guaranteed to advance to the finals in Russia, with Iran having already secured top spot. The highest China can finish is third and Lippi's team must defeat the already eliminated Qataris by a heavy margin and hope other results in the group go their way to earn a play-off for qualification. Investment in Chinese football has grown significantly in recent years with the country's president, Xi Jinping, declaring his desire to see the nation qualify for, host and win the tournament. Chinese Super League clubs have spent heavily to lure some of the game's leading coaches and players to the country, but China continues to lag behind Asia's leading nations, such as Japan, Iran and South Korea. China's only previous appearance at the finals came when South Korea and Japan hosted the tournament 15 years ago, with Bora Milutinovic's side losing all three of their group games against Costa Rica, Brazil and Turkey. (Reporting by Michael Church; Editing by David Goodman)