Tianjin Quanjian win over Hebei CFFC sees Champions League race tighten
Alexandre Pato's header earned Tianjin Quanjian a 2-1 win over Hebei CFFC in the Chinese Super League on Saturday as the battle for third place, and a spot in next year's AFC Champions League, intensified further.
Fabio Cannavaro's Quanjian side remain fourth in the standings but moved to within a point of third-placed Hebei with just two games remaining after Pato gave them victory 12 minutes from time having missed an earlier penalty.
"This game was as important as a final and a final is all about winning," Cannavaro said. "We have two more rounds to go and I am very concerned about our mental preparation. It will be extremely difficult.
"This week will be crucial for us as we need to get ready for the last two matches. I am of course very happy. Our team has reached this stage and there is no reason for me not to be happy. What makes me even happier is that this team has nailed down many crucial games. Regardless of the opponent, we have never been scared off.
"Our team is incomparable from the beginning of the season until now and no matter if we are the third, fourth or fifth I will be very satisfied. The players have done a great job in training and the matches. And from a real man's perspective, they have done great job too."
Zhang Lifeng gave Hebei the lead after 11 minutes and Pato's miss from the penalty spot eight minutes after the restart put Cannavaro's team under pressure.
But Zheng Dalun levelled the scores on the hour-mark before Pato headed home the winner in the 78th minute as Tianjin picked up their first win in four games.
Hebei remain in third place with 49 points but Quanjian are now just a point behind, with Shandong Luneng in fifth on 46 points as the battle for third and a spot in next year's AFC Champions League continues.
Guangzhou R&F, who face Shanghai SIPG on Sunday, will join Shandong on 46 points with a win over Andre Villas-Boas' side to leave four teams fighting for third spot with only two games remaining in the campaign.
Meanwhile, Yanbian Funde's hopes of retaining their top-flight status suffered a terminal blow as a brace from Christian Bassogog gave Henan Jianye a 2-1 win over the team in 15th place.
The loss means Yanbian remain six points behind 14th-placed Tianjin Teda and a draw for Uli Stielike's team against Beijing Guoan on Sunday would see them join last-placed Liaoning Whowin and slip into the second division.
Michael Church has written about Asian football for more than 20 years and mainly covers the Chinese game for ESPN FC. Twitter: @michaelrgchurch