Wang Dalei had double cause for celebration Saturday as he produced a crucial save that helped China open the Asian Cup with a 1-0 win over Saudi Arabia on the night of his 26th birthday.
Yu Hai’s late deflected free kick broke the deadlock after Wang saved Naif Hazazi’s penalty attempt in the 61st minute, giving China a share of top spot in Group B with Uzbekistan, a 1-0 winner over North Korea.
Yu’s left-foot free kick from 30 yards in the 81st deflected off a defender and curled into the bottom of the net as Saudi keeper Waleed Abdullah dived to his right, but it was Wang’s key contribution that earned the player-of-the-match honors.
“Today belongs to Wang Dalei,” China coach Alain Perrin said, adding that the team had a birthday gift prepared for the goalkeeper but would keep it secret. “Definitely satisfied with the defensive effort. We were under constant pressure from the Saudi team, but we didn’t concede … I’m very satisfied.”
The Saudis, playing without injured captain and star forward Nassir Al Shamrani, pressed desperately for a late equalizer but lacked finish and ultimately paid a heavy price for Hazazi’s missed penalty.
“Before the match I got a lot of courage from my coach,” said Wang, who was making his Asian Cup debut. “Of course we’re lucky, but I’m very happy — congratulations to my coach, and my brothers.”
There were few genuine chances in the tightly contested first half, with Chinese midfielder Wu Xi getting the clearest opportunity of the first half but shot wide from the top of the area in the 43rd minute.
China hasn’t progressed through the group stage since the 2004 Asian Cup, but the win was a confidence boost for the squad ahead of Wednesday’s match against Uzbekistan, a semifinalist in 2011. Saudi Arabia plays North Korea on the same day in Melbourne.
The Saudi squad was hoping to rebound from its last Asian Cup when it lost all three group games at Qatar 2011, but had a major setback in the hours leading up to the match when Al Shamrani was ruled out with an abdominal injury.
Saudi Arabia coach Cosmin Olaroiu had no regrets about using Hazazi to take the penalty, and didn’t blame the defeat on one missed opportunity.
The Saudi lineup “played with fight, they showed great spirit,” Olaroiu said. “And they don’t have to lose confidence. We have to win the next game and we can do it.
“The chance to qualify, we still have.”