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After the euphoric reaction to China's 1-0 victory against South Korea in Changsha last week, the mood will be somewhat more subdued Wednesday morning after China lost to Iran by the same scoreline Tuesday night in Tehran.

Playing away to arguably the best team in Asia in front of a 78,000 crowd was always going to be a formidable task and, on the face of it, losing by a single goal is certainly no disgrace.

But the performance from China - so solid in delivering a deserved victory in Changsha - was simply not there.

Iran have made a habit of winning 1-0, something they have now done four times in their past five games. Team Melli have also been incredibly tight defensively, having not conceded a goal in 10 matches, a run that dates back to November 2015.

But even if Iran had played without their entire back line, it's still far from certain that China would have scored, so toothless was their attack.

The game in Tehran was settled early in the second half by Mehdi Taremi's goal, but another goal - scored 2,200 kilometers away in Tashkent - may prove to be more significant in the wider context of China's quest for World Cup qualification.

Uzbekistan's 1-0 victory over Qatar a few hours later means that China now sit seven points behind the third-place spot in Group A with three games to play. With the top two teams in each group qualifying automatically, China's most realistic route to Russia was always to finish third and enter the intercontinental playoff lottery, but even that now seems out of reach.

One scenario, to which Chinese fans will no doubt be clinging, would still see Uzbekistan lose in Tehran, while China beat Syria, before besting the Uzbeks in Wuhan, resulting in a one-point deficit entering the final round of matches.

But, in truth, only a fool would bet on the Chinese team going to Russia next year as anything other than spectators.

The fact remains that, one improved performance against Korea aside, China simply aren't one of the best three teams in this group, and not even a coach with the undoubted capabilities of Marcello Lippi can change that in the time that he has been given.

The FIFA rankings have long been criticized for a variety of reasons, but they at least provide a useful indication of a team's global standing.

At 33 and 40 respectively, Iran and South Korea lie far ahead of the rest, but Uzbekistan's current rank of 63 is still significantly above China at 86. In fact, the bottom three in China's group are ­effectively interchangeable, with Qatar at 84 and Syria at 95.

So far, then, Group A is going ­entirely according to the form book, though there are still those who feel that China could - and should - be doing better, not least because of the country's much-vaunted soccer reform plans.

But those plans - quite rightly - stress a long-term approach, with goals set as far away as 2050. How, then, is it reasonable to expect China to show improvement just two years into that 35-year time frame?

In fact, simply reaching this final round of qualification is a win for China, something the team have done just once before.

Fans can't be blamed for wanting more from their team, or from being disappointed when their heroes come up short - that goes hand in hand with following any sport in any corner of the globe - but steady progress underpinned by sensible expectations should be the real goal for China.

Mark Dreyer is the editor of China Sports Insider. A former reporter at Sky Sports and Fox Sports, he regularly comments on China's sports industry in global media. dreyermark@gmail.com