Australia lose in Amman while Kagawa bails Japan out against Syria
The halfway stage of the second round of qualification for the 2018 World Cup was all about the big boys from East Asia -- Japan, South Korea, China -- and beyond (Australia) travelling significant distances to face mid-level West Asian teams away from home.
Two won and two lost in an exciting night of Asian football. There was little to smile about in Amman for Australia as the men in green and gold lost in their second successive visit. The Socceroos crashed in Jordan in qualification for the 2014 World Cup but there was confidence that this time would be different. The Asian champions are surely stronger and younger than September 2012, or so those close to the camp said. Three years ago, it ended 2-1 to Jordan. This time it was 2-0.
Like last time, Australia will surely be OK. After four of the eight games, Ange Postecoglou's men are just a point behind the victors. With three of the remaining four matches taking place at home, and the other match away to Bangladesh, the continental title-holders have what it takes to win all four. If so, there's nothing Jordan can do. The winner of each of the eight groups go to the third and final round, to be joined by the four best runners-up.
Still, it was disappointing. A strong Socceroos' side looked a little ponderous next to the more mobile men from Amman and none more so than Matthew Spiranovic. The defender fouled Hamza Al-Dardour in the area and there was Hassan Abdel Fattah to smash it home from the spot for his fourth in four games in qualification. Not long before the end, Al Dardour, the rising star of Jordanian football, sealed the win for the delighted hosts. One of the reasons Australia left Oceania in 2006 was far tougher tests and this is exactly what has happened.
Japan also struggled somewhat in the first half at the neutral Omani home of Syria before pulling away after the break to record a 3-0 win. In the end, it was convincing. Keisuke Honda slotted home a spot kick after Shinji Okazaki was bundled over. The Leicester City striker then extended the Samurai Blue's lead before a late strike from Takashi Usami added some gloss to the scoreline. The result puts Japan a point clear of Syria.
Iran came back from a goal down to draw 1-1 with Oman. Saad Suhail put Oman ahead not long into the second half but Jalal Hosseini earned a point for Carlos Queiroz. Both teams stay level on eight points in Group D.
South Korea travelled to Kuwait level on a maximum nine points with the hosts after three games. After just 12 minutes, the Taeguk Warriors took the lead with a goal made in Germany. Borussia Dortmund's Park Joo-ho crossed for Koo Ja-cheol of Augsburg to head home. The Koreans missed a number of chances but will be delighted with the 1-0 win, especially as English Premier League stars Son Heung-min and Lee Chung-yong, of Tottenham Hotspur and Crystal Palace respectively, were absent through injury.
The only other perfect team are Qatar. Karim Boudiaf scored the only goal of the game against China midway through the first half. It puts the 2022 hosts five points clear of China and with one foot in the final round. China will struggle for first and even being one of the four best runners-up is by no means certain.
Elsewhere, the Philippines shocked North Korea with a battling 0-0 draw in Pyongyang. The draw keeps the North Koreans on top of Group H but Uzbekistan's 4-0 win in Bahrain means that the gap has been closed to a single point. The Philippines are still loitering with intent just three points behind the leader.
Asian expert John Duerden is the author of Lions and Tigers: Story of Football in Singapore and Malaysia.Twitter: @JohnnyDuerden.