In what proved a mixed opening matchday for Asia's heavyweights in the continent’s third qualifying round for the 2018 FIFA World Cup Russia™, Japan fell 2-1 at home to an impressive United Arab Emirates side while fellow Brazil 2014 participants Australia, Korea Republic and Iran all prevailed at home against Iraq, China PR and Qatar respectively. Elsewhere, Uzbekistan and Saudi Arabia also got off to winning starts with 1-0 victories over Syria and Thailand. FIFA.com takes a closer look at these Asian showdowns.
Japan 1-2 United Arab Emirates
Keisuke Honda 11; Ahmed Khalil 20, 54(PEN)
United Arab Emirates produced the biggest surprise of the opening matchday, coming from behind to stun hosts Japan. Captain Ahmed Khalil emerged the hero for the visitors, scoring in each half as they inflicted another defeat on the Samurai Blue having triumphed against the same opponents in last year's AFC Asian Cup quarter-final meeting. The spirited victory provides Mahdi Ali's outfit with plenty food for thought when they entertain Australia in their next outing. Vahid Halilhodzic's Japan, meanwhile, have to put their disappointment behind them as they head to Thailand for their forthcoming away game.
Featuring as many as eight European-based stars, the Japanese had the better of the early stages through possession. The home side took an early lead through Keisuke Honda when the AC Milan midfielder headed home a Hiroshi Kiyotake free-kick. UAE responded quickly, though, Khalil equalising with a sublimely-executed free-kick. With growing confidence and determination, the West Asians hit back after the restart as they sought a match-winner. The opportunity finally came when Ismail Al Hammadi was brought down inside the area. From the resulting spot-kick, Khalil kept his cool to seal the three points with a panenka, ending the hosts' undefeated run in this campaign.
**The other attractions
**Hosts Korea Republic continued their dominant record against China by edging the visitors 3-2. Taking a comfortable three-goal lead with 24 minutes left, Uli Stielike's side had to survive a late scare as they hung on against the Chinese. Son Heungmin's dipping free-kick was deflected home by Zheng Zhi for an own-goal as the hosts took a 1-0 first-half lead. They made it to 3-0 after the restart courtesy of quick-fire goals by Lee Chung-yong and Koo Jacheol. The Chinese exploded into life thereafter, though, with Yu Hai pulling one back before Hao Junmin made it 3-2 four minutes later with a free-kick to put the game on a knife's edge. Indeed, Gao Hongbo's side even had opportunities to rescue a point in the closing stages but with Ren Hang denied by goalkeeper Jung Sungryong, Team Dragon returned home empty-handed.
Elsewhere, two second-half goals from Massimo Luongo and Tomi Juric gave Australia an opening victory against Iraq. Spurred on by their home supporters, the Socceroos dominated throughout but they had to wait until 58 minutes to break the deadlock against a determined Iraq. After a goalless first half, the game burst into life after the interval and it was the hosts that saw their efforts pay dividends. Having missed a tap-in, Juric quickly made amends by setting up Luongo to open the scoring. The provider would turn scorer just seven minutes later when he sealed the victory with a goal from close range.
Second-half substitute Alexandr Geynrikh scored the only goal against Syria as Uzbekistan got off to the result they had expected. Debutants Syria maintained their resilient play, reducing the hosts to few opportunities throughout the first half. The Uzbeks piled the pressure on the visitors after the interval with Igor Sergeev coming close. But the breakthrough didn't come until 74 minutes when Odil Akhmedov forced Syria custodian Ibrahim Almeh into a save. From the rebound, Geynrikh was on hand to open the scoring, sending the home crowd into the raptures.
Iran clinched a hard-fought 2-0 victory over Qatar courtesy of stoppage-time strikes from Reza Ghoochannejad and Alireza Jahanbaksh. Both sides fashioned out chances of their own but with neither team able to find the back of the net in the regular time, the game was decided in dramatic fashion when Ghoochannejad put Team Melli ahead four minutes into the injury time before Jahan Bakhsh sealed the triumph.
Saudi Arabia had to leave it late to down visiting Thailand with Nawaf Al Abed scoring the only goal with a spot-kick on 86 minutes. The valiant Thais did threaten through their pace and fluid play, with top-striker Teerasil Dangda coming close only to see his goal-bound header saved. But it was the hosts that carved out better opportunities and notably, Naif Hazazi saw his close-range effort denied. The tightly-contested match ended in heartbreak for the visitors, though, when Fahad Al Muwallad was brought down in the area. From the consequent penalty, Al Abed gave the Thailand keeper no chance as the Saudis scraped through.
Ahmed Khalil stood out as UAE's talented crop sent shockwaves across the continent with the opening defeat of Japan. In a sense, it was a match during which he underlined his status as the reigning AFC Player of the Year. The 25-year-old Al Ahli striker showed a glimpse of his genius on set-pieces when he canceled out Honda's opener. His self-belief was such that he stepped up to the spot to score the match-winner through a cheeky panenka-his thirteenth goal in this campaign which saw him just a goal shy of the qualifying competition's top-scorer Mohammad Al Sahlawi of Saudi Arabia.
Do you know?
*Khalil's match-winning goal against Japan was reminiscent of their previous Asian Cup meeting, when playmaker Amer Abdulrahman scored the decisive spot-kick-also through a panenka as they emerged penalty shoot-out victors. *
What they said**
"In the end a comfortable game with us leading 3-0 in the second half became a difficult one. We were going well with 20 minutes left but we switched off and let in two goals. We have to play well for 90 minutes and not just 70 minutes," Korea Republic coach Uli Stielike.
Matchday 1 results
Korea Republic 3-2 China
Iran 2-0 Qatar
Uzbekistan 1-0 Syria
Australia 2-0 Iraq
Japan 1-2 United Arab Emirates
Saudi Arabia 1-0 Thailand