Javad Nekounam headed home in the 73rd minute as Iran recovered from a two-goal deficit to hold China to a 2-2 draw in an entertaining AFC Asian Cup Group C encounter at Bukit Jalil National Stadium on Sunday evening
In a rematch of the 2004 Asian Cup semi-final, won by the Chinese on penalties, Shao Jiayi fired the east Asian side ahead with a sixth-minute free-kick and Mao Jianqing extended their advantage with a well-taken effort in the 33rd minute.
But Ferydoon Zandi reduced the deficit right at the end of the first half before Nekounam rose above the Chinese defence to head the sides level 17 minutes from time, keeping the two teams level at the top of Group C with four points each.
The result eliminated co-hosts Malaysia from the tournament but left the top two spots in the group still up for grabs with Uzbekistan, who face China on Wednesday, just a point behind the two front-runners.
China named an unchanged starting 11 from the side that hammered Malaysia 5-1 in their opener while Iran made only one alteration from their 2-1 victory over Uzbekistan with Rasoul Khatibi replaced by Hossein Kaebi.
The match kicked off in damp conditions in front of a small but noisy crowd and it was the Chinese that showed the early attacking intent, nearly taking the lead inside 20 seconds with a scissors-kick volley by Han Peng that flew over the crossbar.
The 2004 runners-up battered the Iranian goal in the early minutes and the pressure told in the sixth minute when Han was fouled by Javad Nekounam 25 metres from goal.
The Iranian midfielder was booked for the challenge and from the resulting free-kick, Shao Jiayi curled in an effort that Roudbarian got his hand to but could only palm into his own net.
The Iranians were having trouble coping with China’s high-tempo game and Ferydoon Zandi had to head the ball clear after Li Weifeng’s searching free-kick from his own half nearly picked out Han Peng.
China were fortunate to escape when Zandi’s low cross from the left byline was nearly deflected into his own net by Han but it could have been 2-0 on 31 minutes when Zheng Zhi worked a free-kick from the left over to an unattended Zhou Haibin who fired narrowly wide from 20 metres.
The Chinese would get their second though just two minutes later after Zheng floated in an inviting cross from the right flank that went just over the head of a leaping Shao Jiayi but dropped right at the feet of an unmarked Mao Jianqing, who rammed the ball past Roudbarian before Kaebi could close him down.
Stung into life by the second goal, Iran enjoyed their first decent period of possession in the closing minutes of the half.
Hashemian saw his glancing header saved by Li Leilei in the 36th minute and the China goalkeeper did even better on 43 minutes when he pushed aside a fierce drive by Mahdavikia from the top of the box.
However, Iran would got a lifeline right at the end of the half when they won a free-kick on the right of the Chinese box 20 metres from goal, Mahdavikia touching the ball to Zandi, who lashed a fierce shot past Li Leilei into the top right corner of the net.
Iran assistant coach Nasser Ebrahimi, who took charge with Amir Ghalenoei suspended, made two changes at the break, bringing on Eman Mobali and Javad Kazemian, for the disappointing Ali Karimi and Hossein Kaebi.
The start of the second half would be a scrappy affair as Iran tried to impose themselves on the Chinese, who were content to sit back and absorb the pressure.
For all their pressure, the Iranians made little headway early on with their best opportunities falling to Mobali, who dragged an effort wide from 20 metres in the 55th minute, and Hashemian, whose drive from the edge of the box was deflected over by Li Weifeng six minutes later.
The Iranians were virtually camped in the Chinese half and both Reza Enayati and Nekounam headed wide before the equaliser finally arrived in the 73rd minute when Nekounam rose majestically above the Chinese defence to level the score.
China had offered little to that point in the second half but they enjoyed the better of the closing minutes and could have stolen a winner in the 78th minute when Zhu Ting crossed from the left flank for Zhao Xuri, who lashed a first time volley narrowly wide.
At the end though, a draw was a fair reflection on a spirited encounter dominated by the Chinese in the first half and by the Iranians after the break.