HONG KONG (Reuters) - China's hopes of qualifying for next year's World Cup finals hang by the thinnest of threads after an injury time goal from Ahmed Al Saleh saw Syria hold Marcello Lippi's team to a 2-2 draw on Tuesday evening.
Second half goals from Gao Lin and Wu Xi looked set to give China the win after Mahmoud Al Mawas had put the Syrians in front in the 12th minute when he scored from the penalty spot.
But Al Saleh's curling injury time free kick saw the points shared and leaves the Chinese six points behind third placed Uzbekistan with two games remaining, with the two nations set to meet in August.
The top two teams in each of Asia's two groups qualify automatically, with Iran booking their place in the finals on Monday night thanks to their 2-0 win over the Uzbeks in Tehran. The third placed team enters into a playoff round for Asia's remaining half place.
China had looked set to exit the competition on the eve of a visit to Beijing by FIFA president Gianni Infantino to meet President Xi Jinping when Al Mawas converted after goalkeeper Zeng Cheng had brought down Fahd Youssef.
Zhang Linpeng hit the Syrian crossbar with a header late in the first half as China endured continuing frustration, but a foul on the Guangzhou Evergrande defender in the second half saw Gao level from the spot.
Seven minutes later Jiangsu Suning midfielder Wu volleyed home from eight yards out to give China what appeared to be the winner until Al Saleh struck his late goal.
Japan, meanwhile, were forced to share the points with Iraq in Tehran to leave just one point separating the three teams at the top of Group B with only two matches remaining.
The Japanese continue to lead the group but now only have a one point advantage over Saudi Arabia and Australia after the Socceroos defeated Bert van Marwijk's team last week.
Yuya Osako put Japan in front eight minutes into the game in Tehran when he steered Keisuke Honda's corner home with a header, but a defensive mix-up allowed Mahdi Kamil to level the scores for an Iraqi side that has no chance of qualifying.
The United Arab Emirates missed the chance to close in on the top three teams when they were held to a 1-1 draw in new coach Edgardo Bauza's first game in charge, with Ali Mabkhout scoring late in the game to cancel out Mongkol Thosakrai's opener for Thailand.
Reporting by Michael Church in Hong Kong; Editing by Alison Williams