Three-times champions Iran cruised into the 2015 Asian Cup finals after thrashing Lebanon 4-1 on Tuesday, but China missed the chance to join them and face a nerve-jangling final qualifier after being held to a goalless draw by Saudi Arabia.
World Cup-bound Iran were one of five teams to qualify for the finals from the nine matches played in the penultimate round on Tuesday, with fellow west Asian sides Qatar, Oman and Kuwait also securing berths, as well as Uzbekistan.
Twelve teams have now booked a place at the 16-team finals in Australia, with few big-name casualties apart from in Group C, where 2007 winners Iraq or China will battle it out in March to decide who joins Saudi Arabia in escaping the group.
China will feel they should already be planning an 11th consecutive appearance in the Asian showpiece event, but they could not find a way past a stubborn Saudi backline in Xi'an.
"We need to learn how to convert dominance into a winning situation. I hope we can make it in the last game," China's caretaker coach, Fu Bo, told reporters.
China have eight points from five games in the group, two ahead of Iraq, who kept their finals hopes alive by easing to a 2-0 win in Indonesia.
Hammadi Ahmed scored with a powerful downward header and Kerrar Jassim coolly converted a penalty as the visitors were able to turn their attentions to a home match against China.
"The result of China's game means a lot for us," Iraq coach Hakeem Shakir told reporters. "It benefits us as it puts China under pressure and it gives us a good chance to qualify."
The best third-place side across the five qualifying groups will also secure a berth, meaning all might not be lost for the loser, with Iraq currently holding that position.
They are just ahead of Lebanon, whose automatic chances were crushed in a 4-1 loss at home to Iran in Group B.
Central defender Amir Hossein Sadeghi headed home a corner from the left just before halftime, with Ashkan Dejagah drilling in a second in the 51st minute.
Captain Javad Nekounam slotted a penalty before Reza Ghoochannejhad continued his strong scoring form to make it 4-0 in a match that was played without fans following a double suicide bombing near the Iranian embassy in Beirut earlier on Tuesday.
The result in the Lebanese capital helped Kuwait seal a place in Australia after they beat bottom side Thailand 3-1 at home to move on to nine points from five matches, four behind Iran and four clear of Lebanon.
LE GUEN HAPPY
Oman struck a 91st-minute winner to beat 'home side' Syria 1-0 in a poor quality Group A clash in Tehran.
"Today you didn't witness our best game, but ... I am happy with the result we achieved," Oman coach Paul Le Guen said after Eid Al Farsi was afforded too much space to sidefoot home from 12 metres out.
Jordan, trying to overturn a 5-0 first-leg deficit against Uruguay in their World Cup qualifier on Wednesday, were not in action in Group A but are expected to claim the second berth in the pool when they face Oman and Singapore early next year.
The situation was less complex in Groups E and D, with Uzbekistan and Qatar securing away wins to emulate the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain, who qualified on Friday.
Malaysia goalkeeper Khairul Fahmi Che Mat handed Qatar all three points in Kuala Lumpur when he came flying out of his goal as Sebastian Soria crossed for Abdulkareem Al Ali to steer into an empty net.
Uzbekistan had a nervy wait against 10-man Hong Kong before they found the breakthrough in the 83rd minute thanks to Vokhid Shodiev, who swept in a right-foot effort on the turn. Talented midfielder Odil Ahmedov struck a second in the final moments for Uzbekistan, who reached the semi-finals four years ago.
"We will do our best in Australia and try and do better than we did in Qatar," said coach Mirdjalal Kasimov.
The UAE made it five wins from five in Group E with a 5-0 thrashing of 10-man Vietnam, while Bahrain eased to a 2-0 success over Yemen in Group D to remain a point clear of Qatar.
Image: Lebanon's Ali Hamam (R) fights for the ball with Iran's Ashkan Dejagah during their AFC Asian Cup 2015 qualifying soccer match in Beirut on Tuesday.
After meeting with Lebanese security officials and representatives of Iran and Lebanon football federations, the Asian Football Confederation made a decision to hold the match without spectators, due to bomb explosions which occurred near the Iranian embassy complex in Beirut earlier in the day, local media reported.
Photograph: Mohamed Azakir/Reuters