The FIFA World Cup™ qualifying competition in Asia seems to be getting more and more difficult as the continent's top teams stumbled on Wednesday's second matchday in the run-up to South Africa 2010.
In the first game, group favorites Australia were fortunate to salvage a point from a goalless draw with hosts China. The visitors had Mark Schwarzer to thank as the Middlesbrough goalkeeper saved Shao Jiayi's spot-kick with just a minute left on the clock to deny the Chinese a famous win.
Coach Pim Verbeek's Australia side traveled to Kunming with an under-strength side, as five of their English-based stars were ruled out due to injury. Moreover, a seeming lack of preparation at high altitude saw the team struggle, as they produced only one clear chance in the first half, Mark Bresciano forcing Zong Lei into an excellent save.
With the Australian players' looking tired after the break, China coach Vladimir Petrovic brought on three substitutes to keep up the pressure. The hosts' game plan looked like paying dividends too when substitute striker Qu Bo was brought down by Schwarzer in the area.
The Aussie keeper went from villain to hero by saving the penalty and rescuing the point. "It is definitely a highlight," he said. "If you look at our preparation and the conditions in the build-up to the game, a draw is an amazing result."
After the game Verbeek's Socceroos are still first place in the section while Qatar, who pulled off a 2-0 at home over Iraq, clawed themselves back into second spot ahead of China, whose two points from the opening two games have kept their hopes alive.
Australia's stalemate with China was not the only surprising draw either. Korea Republic came away with only a point following their 0-0 against Korea DPR, who met in Shanghai. Having squandered numerous chances in both halves, coach Huh Jung-Moo's team could do no better than share the spoils with their neighbours from the north.
After the draw, the two teams are jointly sitting at the section's summit ahead of Jordan, who defeated hosts Turkmenistan 2-0 in the other match.
With Australia and Korea Republic stunned slightly, it was three-time Asian champions Saudi Arabia who suffered the biggest upset of the day as they were crushed 3-0 in Tashkent at the hands of Uzbekistan.
Having travelled back from Lebanon with a 1-0 win from their opening match, the rampant Central Asians further raised their game by registering their biggest victory over the Saudis. Timur Kapadze headed the home side into the lead on the stroke of half-time before Maksim Shatskikh doubled the advantage after the interval. Only two minutes later, Server Djeparov scored a penalty to put the result beyond doubt.
The resounding victory not only strengthened Uzbekistan's place as group favourites but also saw them become the only team with a 100 per cent record after two rounds. They are three points clear of both the Saudis and Singapore, who defeated Lebanon on Wednesday.
Also joining Saudi Arabia in the losers' column were giants Japan. Asia's highest-ranked team in the FIFA/Coca-Cola World Ranking were stunned 1-0 by hosts Bahrain. Hubail A'ala, Bahrain's 2004 AFC Asian Cup top-scorer, netted the only goal of the match on 77 minutes to separate the group favourites
Japan are in second place ahead of Oman on goal difference. But Oman will be in the better frame of mind of the two second-place sides as they overcame Thailand 1-0 to close the gap on the group leaders. Ismail Al Ajmi scoring the quickest goal of the day when he latched onto Imad Ali's cross after just 20 seconds.
Wednesday's action ended as it began, with two strongly favoured sides failing to live up to expectations away from home. The one-point ghosts haunting Asia's big boys throughout the day also claimed Ali Daei's Iran in the last match of the day, as they threw away a two-goal lead to draw with Kuwait.
United Arab Emirates had their blushes saved through Ismail Al Junarbi, who cancelled Syrian Zyad Chaabo's early goal with a 54th-minute equaliser. UAE are at the top with four points, but with the other three teams needing just a win to make up the deficit, the competition is wide open.
Results - Matchday Two
Wednesday 26 March
China 0-0 Australia; Qatar 2-0 Iraq
Bahrain 1-0 Japan; Thailand 0-1 Oman
Korea DPR 0-0 Korea Republic; Turkmenistan 0-2 Jordan
Uzbekistan 3-0 Saudi Arabia; Singapore 2-0 Lebanon
Kuwait 2-2 Iran; Syria 1-1 United Arab Emirates