Traditional powerhouses rallied to restore their pride in Asia's penultimate matchday on Tuesday, with Korea Republic, Australia and Iran each clinching crucial wins to edge closer to qualification for the 2014 FIFA World Cup Brazil™.
Notably, the Taeguk Warriors all but sealed progression with a hard-fought 1-0 home defeat of Uzbekistan who, needing just a win to claim Group A’s first qualifying spot, missed a golden chance to book their maiden progression. Iran, meanwhile, moved to second after routing Lebanon 4-0, and now trail leaders Korea Republic by just a point.
Group B’s Socceroos, too, saw their hopes greatly bolstered with a 4-0 thumping of Jordan at home. Elsewhere, former Asian champions Iraq were eliminated with a 1-0 home defeat to Japan. With three automatic spots and two third-place play-off berths still up for grabs, next Tuesday's concluding matchday promises to be a tight, pulsating conclusion.
Korea Republic entered the home game determined to put last Tuesday's 1-1 draw in Lebanon behind them, with coach Choi Kanghee fielding a much-changed line-up. Roared on by the home crowd, the hosts took the game to the visitors from the outset, with first Lee Chungyong and then Lee Keunho coming close. At the opposite end, Ulugbek Bakayev stung the hand of Jung Sungryong with a 35-yarder, before heading over off Server Djeparov's diagonal pass.
The breakthrough came just before the break in unexpected fashion, when China-based Kim Younggwon saw his curling pass cause havoc in the area. Attempting to snuff out the danger, Akmal Shorakhmedov jumped and got his head to the ball, only to put through his own net to gift the home side a match-winning goal.
What had been anticipated to be a tightly contested match turned out a one-sided affair for Australia, who thrashed Jordan 4-0 to leapfrog Oman to second place by a single point. With leaders Japan already qualified, Holger Osieck’s Socceroos are leading the race for the section's remaining qualifying spot ahead of next Tuesday's concluding match against Iraq at home.
Robbie Kruse was the hosts' hero, setting up two and scoring one to put his side on the road to a resounding triumph. Having seen a cut-back narrowly missed by Brett Holman, the dynamic winger surged down the right before crossing for Mark Bresciano to open the scoring on the quarter-hour.
The Bayer Leverkusen man continued to maraud after the restart, perfectly crossing for former Everton star Tim Cahill to double the advantage with a header. The provider then turned scorer on the hour mark, slotting past Amer Shafi to crush any hopes of comeback. Icing the cake was provided by captain Lucas Neill, who wrapped up the resounding victory with a header.
The other attractions
Buoyed by their 1-0 victory in Qatar, Iran entertained Lebanon seeking to enhance their hopes with a comfortable win. Playing in front of a packed Azadi Stadium, the hosts pressed forward from the outset but having squandered a series of chances, it took Team Melli 39 minutes to open the scoring courtesy of Mohammad Reza Khalatbari's effort. Captain Javad Nekonam then doubled their advantage before the break, and after Reza Ghooghannejhad made it 3-0 shortly after the interval, the former Osasuna midfielder sealed the victory with his second goal four minutes from time.
Elsewhere, a desperate Iraq fell 1-0 to qualified Japan at home to crash out of the campaign with a game left. The hosts carved out a series of chances throughout, only lacking the necessary accuracy and luck to break the deadlock. Japan, with talisman Keisuke Honda warming the bench and captain Makoto Hasebe suspended, still looked very much in the control, with Shinji Okazaki settling the contest by slotting into an unguarded net a minute from time, ensuring his side arrive in Brazil for the FIFA Confederations Cup in winning form.
Robbie Kruse proved Australia's brightest star, having a hand in three opening goals to earn him a Man of the Match award. The 24-year-old dazzled the Jordan defence with his pace, vision and dangerous crosses from the right, a feat which further enhanced his status as the Socceroos' next star.
What they said
"Within our group it's clear that we still have to be on our toes - tonight is no time for a celebration. Iraq will be a tough call for us, it's definitely not a piece of cake," Holger Osieck, Australia coach.