Matchday three of Asia's third round of qualifying for the 2010 FIFA World Cup South Africa 2010™ was a mixed bag for the continent's top five teams, who all featured at the finals in Germany in 2006.
Slow starters Australia, Japan, and Saudi Arabia, bounced back to win their crucial tests while Korea Republic and Iran were left ruing missed chances, dropping points at home against Jordan and the United Arab Emirates respectively.
Although the "big five" may have kept their campaigns on track, either with victories or draws, it was a pair of Asia's second-tier outfits who stole the show, with Uzbekistan and Bahrain remaining the only two teams with perfect records at the halfway mark in Asia.
In an open contest in Singapore, Uzbekistan - who stunned Saudi Arabia 3-0 in the last match - continued their flying form with a 7-3 win over their hosts in what was the biggest margin of victory for the round. Cheered on by a raucous home crowd, the Lions twice came from behind to level the score at 2-2 before the visitors grabbed three goals in the space of ten minutes to put the result beyond doubt. Server Djeparov bagged a brace before Vitaliy Denisov laid claim to a fourth goal. Aziz Ibragimov put the icing on the cake in the second half and Maksim Shatskikh sealed the triumph with just two minutes to go.
The win saw coach Rauf Inileyev's Uzbeks keep hold of first place in Group 4 despite Saudi Arabia's 4-1 over Lebanon in the other match. Topping the group with nine points from three games, a home win against Singapore in the return leg on 7 June will seal their place in the last ten with two games to spare.
Like Uzbekistan, Bahrain are also on the verge of booking early passage from Group 2 after beating hosts Thailand 3-2 in Bangkok, a result which kept intact their three-point lead over Japan, who thrashed Oman 3-0 at home. Coach Milan Macala's side now play host to Thailand in five days, and a win in Manama will all but see Bahrain through.
*Aussies win * Coach Pim Verbeek's Australia are now the only team from the so-called "big five" to to have opened up an impressive lead in their group, thanks to a 1-0 win over Iraq in which captain Harry Kewell headed home a Brett Emerton cross two minutes after the interval. With hosts Qatar and China sharing the spoils after a goalless draw in the other match, the Socceroos further cemented pole position in Group 1. A win against Iraq in the next fixture will essentially send them through.
Elsewhere, Ali Daei's Iran failed to exorcise their demons after being held to a goalless draw in Tehran by a resilient UAE side. The draw leaves Iran without a win in ten months, and puts added pressure on Team Melli to find their first win in Group 5 when they travel to Al Ain for the return match against UAE this Saturday.
Contrasting the poor performances of the three-time Asian champions, the group's surprise packages Syria carved out a 1-0 win against Kuwait to move up to second place, behind UAE only on goal difference. With two games remaining and all four teams still with hopes of moving on, the competition for the group's top two spots is wide open.
Also appearing tricky and tight is group 3, where joint leaders Korea Republic and Korea DPR remain on top after managing no more than a point each against their respective rivals. The North Koreans failed to breach the rearguard of a determined Turkmenistan in a 0-0 draw, while in the earliest match, played on 31 May, coach Huh Jung-Moo's Korea Republic, despite gaining a two-goal lead in the opening half against Jordan, were punished for their complacency late in the second half when Hasan Abdel Mahmoud scored twice within eight minutes to force a 2-2 draw.
Asian Zone, Round 3, Matchday 3 results: *31 May
* Korea Republic 2-2 Jordan
Australia 1-0 Iraq
* Japan 3-0 Oman
Thailand 2-3 Bahrain
Singapore 3-7 Uzbekistan
Turkmenistan 0-0 Korea DPR
Iran 0-0 United Arab Emirates
Qatar 0-0 China PR
Syria 1-0 Kuwait
Saudi Arabia 4-1 Lebanon