SAITAMA, Japan: Japan were left fuming over a refereeing howler after a shock defeat to UAE rocked their World Cup qualifying campaign on Thursday (Friday in Manila), while South Korea held off China.
Asian champions Australia overcame a nervy start to beat Iraq 2-0 as Asia’s third round of 2018 World Cup qualifying got underway, with 12 teams vying for four automatic berths.
Japan lead against UAE in Saitama through AC Milan forward Keisuke Honda’s 11th minute header.
But Ahmed Khalil’s sumptuous free-kick and penalty either side of half-time ensured a 2-1 win for the visitors, although Japan controversially had a late equaliser disallowed.
Officials failed to spot that Takuma Asano’s shot, clawed away by Khalid Eisa, had crossed the line, as shown by TV replays.
Qatari referee Abdulrahman Al Jassim waved away Japan’s protests as the Blue Samurai crashed once again to UAE, their conquerors in last year’s Asian Cup quarter-finals.
“The referee was unacceptable,” thundered Japan coach Vahid Halilhodzic, who called it a “horrible result”.
“They (Japan) had many chances, and they lost two goals after a free-kick and a penalty that could have been avoided,” growled the Bosnian.
In Seoul, Zheng Zhi’s early own goal ultimately condemned China to a 3-2 defeat to South Korea despite a spirited fight-back from the visitors.
China’s talisman became their fall guy as he inadvertently bundled Son Heung-Min’s free-kick into his own net on 20 minutes at Seoul World Cup Stadium.
Lee Chung-Yong and Koo Ja-Cheol both scored to pile on the pain for China but the visitors hauled their way back into it following late strikes from Yu Hai and Hao Junmin.
However, a precious equaliser eluded Gao Hongbo’s men.
While South Korea are targeting a 10th World Cup, China have only ever reached the showpiece once, in 2002, although President Xi Jinping has ambitions of awakening the sleeping giant and turning it into a global football power.
Earlier, hotshots Massimo Luongo and Tomi Juric were on target as Australia overcame a dogged Iraq outfit to win 2-0 in Perth.
The Socceroos didn’t have it all their own way until QPR’s Luongo and Luzern striker Juric scored in a seven-minute, second-half burst.
“It was a great way to come back today,” said Juric, who was recalled by coach Ange Postecoglou after missing Australia’s friendlies against Greece in June.
“There definitely could have been a few more (goals) on our side, but it is a great result to start this campaign.”
Iran struck twice in second-half injury time for a dramatic 2-0 victory over Qatar at the jam-packed Azadi Stadium in Tehran.
The Group A match appeared headed for a scrappy draw but Qatar goalkeeper Amine Lecomte made a mess of what should have been an easy clearance, allowing Karim Ansarifard to set up Reza Ghoochanejhad to slot home with ease.
The Qatari defence was caught napping moments later and Alireza Jahanbaksh struck with a long-ranger giving goalkeeper Lecomte no chance at all.
Earlier in Tashkent, Uzbekistan celebrated their 25th Independence Day with a 1-0 win over Syria in Group A thanks to a fine strike by veteran Aleksandr Geynrikh in the 73rd minute.
Geynrikh, a 56th minute substitute, pounced on a rebound in a flash to score with a powerful half volley after Syria goalkeeper Ibrahim Almeh had produced smart save off a stinging shot by Odil Akhmedov.
Saudi Arabia also clinched a late 1-0 victory over Thailand in Group B, thanks to an 84th minute penalty by Nawaf al-Abid at the King Fahd International Stadium in Riyadh.
The top two in each of Asia’s two groups of six will qualify for the World Cup in Russia, while the third-placed sides will face each other for the right to contest an intercontinental play-off.