The gulf in class between Asia's top teams and the hopeful underdogs was best illustrated in Wednesday's FIFA World Cup™ qualifying round. No major upsets were recorded on the opening day of the third stage.
Four of the so-called Big Five, who represented Asia at the last finals in Germany, cruised to resounding victories with only Iran being held to a goalless draw by unfancied Syria in Tehran.
Pim Verbeek's reign as Australia coach could not have got off to a better start as the Socceroos trounced Qatar 3-0 at the Telstra Dome in Melbourne. The result lent credence to the Dutchman's decision to count primarily on overseas-based players. Defender Craig Moore and John Aloisi were the only home-based players in the side.
Playing in front of a 51,000-strong crowd, Verbeek's charges started brightly as Karlsruhe striker Joshua Kennedy headed them into the lead after only ten minutes. Seven minutes later Everton midfielder Tim Cahill doubled the edge, guiding a Luke Wilkshire corner into an empty net. Palermo forward Mark Bresciano then latched on to Scott McDonald's pass on 33 minutes to seal a memorable win for the home side.
Verbeek, who took the Aussie reins in November, was quick to acknowledge his team's dominance, claiming: "We had a fantastic first half and we didn't give them a chance to play."
The game also marked a fitting send-off for veteran defender Moore, who announced his retirement from international football after the final whistle. "It was a great way to finish it off," said the 32-year-old whose 11-year international career was highlighted by a goal against Croatia in the group stages of Germany 2006.
The emphatic win not only put the Australians at the top of what is widely considered the continent's toughest group, but also comes as a massive morale-booster after their disappointing campaign in July's AFC Asian Cup.
Australia play next on 26 March away to China, where a win will have them marked out as clear favourites to take Group One.
*Double delight for East Asians * On their traditional Lunar New Year's Eve, three of the four East Asian combatants added to the festivities with victories. Korea Republic, under newly appointed coach Huh Jung-Moo, ran out 4-0 winners against visiting Turkmenistan, while their Japanese neighbours had few problems against Thailand in a 4-1 rout in Tokyo.
The much-anticipated contest between Jordan and Korea DPR, the two potential surprise packages, ended 1-0 in favour of the East Asians, Hong Yong-Jo scoring the only goal before the break. Coach Jo Tong-Sop's team will next cross swords with their peninsular neighbours, Korea Republic, and a draw would see the blood brothers joint-top of their section.
Despite being the only team from the Far East to miss out on a full three points, the opening game was not a total disappointment for China PR, whose captain Zheng Zhi cancelled out Hawar Taher's 50th-minute spot kick to force a 1-1 draw with Asian champions Iraq. China's Serbian coach Vladimir Petrovic, however, thinks the single point will make their next game against Australia a crucial one.
"Australia have three points while we have only one. Thus the pressure is on us to do our best to win the match," he said.
Elsewhere, cheered on by their raucous supporters, United Arab Emirates pulled a comfortable 2-0 win over Kuwait in Abu Dhabi. Conversely, home advantage proved not much help for Oman and Lebanon, who lost by the slightest margin to Bahrain and Uzbekistan respectively.
In the day's final game hosts Saudi Arabia defeated Singapore 2-0. Reigning AFC Player of the Year Yasser Al Kahtani opened the scoring on 38 minutes before striker Malek Al Hawsawi sealed victory four minutes from time.
Matchday One Results: Group 1
Australia 3-0 Qatar
Iraq 1-1 China
*Group 2 * Japan 4-1 Thailand
Oman 0-1 Bahrain
Korea Republic 4-0 Turkmenistan
Jordan 0-1 Korea DPR
Saudi Arabia 2-0 Singapore
Lebanon 0-1 Uzbekistan
Iran 0-0 Syria
United Arab Emirates 2-0 Kuwait