Asia is chasing four automatic spots in the 2018 World Cup, and opened its final group play round Thursday with no lack of surprise results.
AFC will send the top two teams from Groups A and B of qualifying, while the third place teams will play a home-and-home series for the right to face CONCACAF’s fourth place side.
Let’s begin at Saitama Stadium, where world N0. 48 Japan was stunned by United Arab Emirates. Keisuke Honda opened the scoring for the hosts before 25-year-old Al Ahli striker Ahmed Khalil and scored on both sides of halftime to give UAE a 2-1 win for a surprising three points.
Japan hasn’t missed a World Cup since 1994, and this loss stings given that most of Group B’s sides will expect to handle UAE at home (UAE recently lost to Jordan and Syria).
World No. 120 Thailand came close to striking an upset blow, but Nawaf Al-Abed converted a late penalty to give hosts Saudi Arabia a win. Australia got a pair of second half goals to ease to a home win over Iraq.
Next up: Tuesday matches between Iraq and Saudi Arabia, Thailand and Japan, and UAE and Australia.
In Group A, South Korea appeared ready to cruise past visiting China on the strength of a 3-0 lead, but Team Dragon picked up two goals in four minutes to make it interesting before falling 3-2.
Uzbekistan received a stiff challenge from underdog visitors Syria, but Ordabasy striker Alexander Geynrikh broke through in the 74th minute to lift the hosts to a 1-0 win.
Iran, too, faced nervy times at home but 11 minutes of stoppage time saw goals from Reza Ghoochannejhad (Heerenveen) and Alireza Jahanbakhsh (AZ Alkmaar) boost the Persian Stars to a 2-0 win over Qatar. The first goal was rather poor on Qatar’s goalkeeper.
Tuesday’s matches see China and Iran, Syria versus South Korea, and Qatar taking on Uzbekistan.