Asia's big guns secure convincing World Cup wins
BANGKOK, Feb 6 (Reuters) - The big hitters of Asian soccer got their 2010 World Cup qualifying campaigns off to a flying start on Wednesday with Australia, Saudi Arabia, Japan and South Korea all securing convincing wins.
But there were sluggish starts for two of the top Gulf teams, with Iran held to a disappointing goalless draw with part-timers Syria and Asian Cup holders Iraq sharing the points in their home Group One match with China.
Top-ranked Australia looked to have put last year's miserable Asian Cup debut behind them when they trounced Qatar 3-0 in Melbourne to make the early Group One headway, and Saudi Arabia set the pace in Group Five after beating Singapore 2-0 in Riyadh.
South Korea, Asia's most successful World Cup team, began their path towards their seventh successive finals with a 4-0 win over unfancied Turkmenistan, while Japan froze out their opponents from tropical Thailand with a 4-1 win in icy Saitama.
Australia relied on their Europe-based players to tie up their match inside the first 33 minutes, with goals from Karlsruhe striker Josh Kennedy, Everton's Tim Cahill and Palermo's Mark Bresciano delighting new coach Pim Verbeek and the near-capacity crowd of 50,969.
'We played a fantastic first half. We created chances, we scored great goals, we never gave them one chance,' Verbeek told reporters. 'I'm very proud of what they did.'
Thailand were given little chance in the falling snow against Japan, who went ahead on 21 minutes when Yasuhito Endo converted a superb curling free kick from 30 metres.
Japanese celebrations were cut short seconds later when pacy striker Teerathep Winothai stunned the home side by equalising with a stinging long-range effort.
The visitors started to fall apart after the break when Narongchai Vachiraban's attempted clearance fell to Yoshito Okubo, who prodded home on 55 minutes.
Narongchai was sent off soon after, paving the way for Japan to cement the Group Two win with headed goals from Yuji Nakazawa on 66 minutes and substitute Seiichiro Maki in stoppage time.
Coach Takeshi Okada, in charge for the second time after steering Japan to their first World Cup finals in 1998, said the score had flattered his team.
'These games are never easy,' Okada told reporters. 'Scoring three goals from set pieces is nice but it's worrying we only scored one from open play.'
South Korea, semi-finalists at the 2002 World Cup, left it close to halftime to get off the mark against Turkmenistan in Group Three, with defender Kwak Tae-hwi heading home a delicate cross from Fulham's Seol Ki-hyeon.
Seol scored the first of his two goals after the break before Manchester United's Park Ji-sung's curling effort from the corner of the box beat the keeper on 70 minutes.
Seol rounded off the win 13 minutes later, latching on to Lee Kwan-woo's pass to slide the ball into the net.
South Korean coach Huh Jong-moo said: 'I'm happy with the performance tonight. Turkmenistan didn't play that badly. It's just that our team was better.'
Asian player of the year Yasser Al Qahtani gave four-time World Cup qualifiers Saudi Arabia the lead in the 38th minute against Singapore before Malek Al Hawsawi rounded off the victory nine minutes before the end.
Uzbekistan, in search of a place in their first finals after coming close in the last campaign, beat Lebanon 1-0 in Beirut after Odil Ahmedov put them ahead in the 44th minute.
Three-times Asian Cup winners Iran failed to score for a fifth successive game and were humbled at home by a Syrian team that could not afford to keep their Italian coach, former World Cup winner Antonio Cabrini.
War-torn Iraq failed to use their 'home' advantage in Dubai, letting slip their 51st-minute lead from Taher Hawartheir and allowing Charlton Athletic's Zheng Zhi to equalise with 15 minutes to go.
Iraq lost captain Younis Mahmoud through injury and had playmaker Nashat Akram sent off for a second yellow card.
Bahrain, who lost a playoff for a place in the 2006 finals, beat Oman 1-0 in Muscat, with Aala Hubail's 14th minute goal enough to secure the points for the visitors.