The Asian media delivered mixed verdicts on the heavyweights' performances on Matchday 3 of the third stage of Asian qualifying for the 2010 FIFA World Cup South Africa™. While several of the favourites lost ground in the race to reach the continent's final ten, and were duly criticised by the local press, others were praised for taking positive steps.
In the former category were Korea Republic, who looked to be cruising to victory over Jordan when 2-0 up early in the second half of their Group 3 match in Seoul. The visitors' substitute Hasan Abdel Mahmoud had other ideas, however, and his double earned his side a 2-2 draw on Saturday. 'Much ado with frustrating draw' ran the Yonhap news agency's headline after the Taeguk Warriors drew their second game in succession.
The agency added: "It was a heavy blow for the team, who now face a difficult trip to Jordan and Turkmenistan before playing Korea DPR at home later this month. The hosts were a better team tonight but lady luck wasn't on their side."
The Yonhap newspaper also voiced its concern: "Korea Republic need to work on organisation and concentration. It's time to look back and see what has been going wrong and how to solve the problems."
Kewell and Nakamura earn applause
Australia continued their positive start in Group 1 by defeating Iraq in Brisbane the following day, a result which was met with approval in the local media. "If revenge is a dish best served cold, the Socceroos will be enjoying the taste of success after a gritty 1-0 win over Iraq put them within reach of progression to the next stage of the World Cup qualifying campaign," trumpeted the Sydney Morning Herald.
Harry Kewell, who scored the solitary goal to help the Socceroos past the Asian champions, was singled out for praise by The Australian: "It's been almost two years since the world has seen the best of Harry Kewell. With the challenges laid bare in front of him, Kewell last night responded in emphatic fashion, sending a message in his 76-minute display that no doubt will go around the world. Kewell was simply outstanding for the Socceroos," it read.
In China PR, meanwhile, the local media was split over the defensive tactics that contributed to a 0-0 draw in Qatar in the other Group 1 game. "The team has set a realistic goal in the pair of double-headers against Qatar, which is gaining four points. With the point in the first leg, we can count on a victory against Qatar in the return match in Tianjin," wrote an upbeat Oriental Sports Daily.
The Xinmin Evening Post, by contrast, was critical of China's display: "Throughout the game the team did everything they could to keep the rivals at bay and their performances were far from impressive. But we have lady luck to thank after Qatar missed the chance of winning the game by rattling the crossbar on 88 minutes."
Despite this, the Shanghai Daily was optimistic about the return leg: "It's not the situation we wanted, but fortunately it's our turn to count on home advantage next."
The Japanese players wore black armbands in their Group 2 match against Oman on Monday out of respect for Ken Naganuma, who passed away the same day. A former player, coach and head of the Japanese Football Association, Naganuma contributed hugely to the development of football in his homeland, even guiding Japan to their only Olympic football medal; bronze in 1968.
The team responded fittingly, running out comfortable 3-0 winners in Yokohama, and while the press initially reported a 'Victory for Naganuma', the following morning's newspapers hailed the brilliance of Shunsuke Nakamura. The Celtic playmaker helped set up one goal and scored another - a sublime long-range effort - to steal the headlines in the Nikkan Sports and other tabloids.
"March's performance against Bahrain was almost unreal. Japan could not afford to lose two in a row, and we especially couldn't afford to lose at home to a rival we could face in the final round of qualifying," said the more conservative Yomiuri Shimbun. "The coach and players fought with unwavering resolve to get this result."
Lebanon took a surprise early lead in their Group 4 clash with Saudi Arabia, whose captain, reigning AFC Player of the Year Yasser Al Kahtani, nevertheless inspired a 4-1 comeback victory. Saudi newspaper Al-Riyadh quoted coach Helio Pinto remarking afterwards: "We claimed all three points, which is the most important thing.
"I'm sure we'll improve in the coming games. We held on to second place in the group behind Uzbekistan, which would be enough for us to reach the next round. However, I appeal to the Saudi fans to come to the stadium and support their team."
The paper also revealed the disappointment of Lebanon coach Emile Rustom. "Saudi Arabia are one of the best teams in Asia, but we didn't deserve such a heavy defeat," he lamented. "The problems back home affected us of course, but I was still expecting better performance from my players."
Elsewhere in Group 5, United Arab Emirates held regional giants Iran to their their third consecutive draw in the group. "The players were champions," the UAE's French coach Bruno Metsu told English-language daily, The Khaleej Times. "They played with spirit and didn't fear the crowd. I'm excited that we managed to get a point in Tehran."