Iran, Japan and South Korea victorious in AFC World Cup qualifiers
Iran moved to within a single victory of the 2018 World Cup on Tuesday with a 1-0 win over China in front of 100,000 fans at the Azadi Stadium.
Medhi Taremi's goal early in the second half broke stiff Chinese resistance and put Carlos Queiroz's men on 17 points from seven games in the third round of qualification with three games left to play. With the top two from Group A and B heading to Russia next summer, Iran are now within touching distance of the finals.
Zeng Cheng was a busy man in the China goal in the first half. The Guangzhou Evergrande stopper had to be at his best to keep out efforts from Reza Ghoochannejhad, Masoud Shojaei and Omid Ebrahimi.
China's fine defensive performance from the first 45 minutes was all undone in the first 45 seconds after the restart. The visitors had chances to clear the danger before captain Zheng Zhi headed the ball back into the danger zone. Taremi drilled the ball towards goal and Zeng let the well-hit shot slip through his grip and into the net.
Fresh off a historic win over South Korea, China rarely threatened to become the first team in the group to score against Iran and coach Marcello Lippi cut a frustrated figure on the sidelines.
The loss leaves China's World Cup hopes, already slim, looking non-existent. Team Dragon are eight points behind South Korea in second and seven behind Uzbekistan in third with just three games to play.
After the defeat to China five days earlier, South Korea got a win they needed against Syria, prevailing 1-0 win Seoul. Nerves were reduced after just four minutes when defender Hong Jeong-ho volleyed home from a corner.
It was a much more vibrant attacking performance from the Taeguk Warriors but the second goal did not come and not long after the half-hour, the visitors should have equalised when Alaa Al Shbli missed a glorious opportunity from close range.
South Korea continued to look the better team while Syria continued to have chances, not least in injury time when Firas Al Khatib hit the crossbar.
In the third game of Group A, Uzbekistan managed a 1-0 home win over Qatar through a free kick from Odil Akhmedov in the 66th minute.
Uzbekistan solidified their hold on third, moving four points clear of Syria, with 2022 World Cup hosts Qatar eight points back.
The headlines in Group B came in Sydney as Australia returned to winning ways after four successive draws and ended Mahdi Ali's five-year tenure as coach of United Arab Emirates.
Goals in each half from Jackson Irvine and Mathew Leckie gave the Socceroos a 2-0 win to move onto 13 points from seven games. The result keeps the hosts in touch with the top two.
Overall, it was a disappointing performance and result for the U.A.E. for the second time in five days. Full of hope after an opening day win in Japan, the third-placed team from the 2015 Asian Cup have failed to make the step up to the next level.
The past two Asian Players of the Year, Ahmed Khalil and Omar Abdulrahman had little influence on the game and the defeat leaves the UAE four points adrift of the top three. Mahdi Ali resigned with immediate effect minutes after the final whistle.
It seems a long time since Japan lost the opening game of the group at home to the U.A.E. and became worried about reaching a sixth successive World Cup. Six games later, the Samurai Blue have seven more points than their early conquerors.
The latest came with a comfortable 4-0 win over bottom team Thailand at Saitama Stadium.
Shinji Kagawa fired home from near the penalty spot after just six minutes to set the Samurai Blue on their way and soon after Shinji Okazaki sent a near-post header past Kawin Thamsatchanan.
Thailand had chances to get back into the game, most notably with a crazy goalmouth scramble at the end of the first half during which the ball somehow stayed out of the net.
Yuya Kubo sealed the win just before the hour and then captain and Southampton defender Maya Yoshida headed home from a corner with seven minutes remaining. There was still time for Teerasil Dangda to have a late penalty saved by Eiji Kawashima.
The result confirms that Thailand, with one point, are out of the running.
Yahya Al Shehri scored with a fine strike from the top of the box early in the second half to give Saudi Arabia a 1-0 win over Iraq.
The result moves Saudi Arabia level on 16 points, level with Japan atop the table and three above Australia in third.
Iraq will need to win their final three games and hope Australia lose theirs to have any chance to finish third.
Asian expert John Duerden is the author of Lions and Tigers: Story of Football in Singapore and Malaysia.Twitter: @JohnnyDuerden.