Forward Gao Lin converted a penalty to give China a 2-1 comeback win against Thailand in the AFC Asian Cup round of 16 on Sunday.
Supachai Jaided broke the deadlock for Thailand in the first half but second-half goals from substitute veteran forward Xiao Zhi and Gao Lin led China, the runners-up in 1984 and 2004, to the last eight of the tournament.
"It's an very important victory for us, it means we are one of the best eight teams in Asian, "said China head coach Marcello Lippi. "We made many mistakes in the first half, but we fought back after the break and beat the opponent, I am proud of my players."
Both sides were struggling to create clear openings. Thailand's Tanaboon Kesarat fired a powerful freekick from outside the box in the 23rd minute but it was tipped over by keeper Yan Junling. Thailand worked out another good chance four minutes later, but Supachai Jaided's shot inside the box went just wide of the far post.
China failed to create a clear-cut chance in the first half-hour as their top-scorer Wu Lei spending much of his time in coming deep to get the ball.
Thailand, who reached the knockout stages of the Asian Cup for just the second time, took the lead in the 41st minute when Supachai Jaided scored from close range following a set piece.
"China became more aggressive in attacking in the second half, making us look very fragile in the defence. It's pity that we failed to hold the 1-0 lead," Sirisak Yodyardthai said, who is the caretaker boss of Thailand.
China could have levelled three minutes after the interval when Gao Lin set up Wu Lei, whose strike missed the target. Yu Dabao was close to pull China back on 60 minutes but his close-range shot was straight at Thai goalkeeper Siwarak.
China took off Yu Dabao and introduced 34-year-old Xiao Zhi after 64 minutes, which made an instant impact two minutes later as Xiao secured the goal from captain Zheng Zhi's fine cross.
"We played much better than the first half after I changed the formation to play three centre-backs, and our substitutes brought the advantage to us, especially Xiao Zhi scored the important goal," said Lippi.
The Team Dragon then pressed and started getting more decent deliveries into the box, and they were rewarded in the 71st minute when Gao Lin earned a penalty and scored the winner from the spot with 20 minutes remaining.
China will face the winners of the match between Iran and Oman in the quarterfinals.