BANGKOK, April 1 (Reuters) - Australia had one foot in next year's World Cup finals after beating Uzbekistan 2-0 on Wednesday while South Korea scored a late winner to down rivals North Korea 1-0 and wrestle back the Group Two lead.
Victory in Sydney gave Australia 13 points from five games in Group One, two clear of Japan, but Bahrain's 1-0 triumph over Qatar prevented the Socceroos becoming the first team to qualify for the tournament in South Africa.
In Riyadh, Saudi Arabia pulled off a second late fightback in as many games to defeat United Arab Emirates 3-2 and go level on points in Group Two with second-placed North Korea.
Two teams progress from each Asian section and the third-placed sides contest a two-legged playoff for the right to meet Oceania champions New Zealand for a place in the 2010 finals.
South Korea snatched the group lead from their fierce political foes after a free kick wide on the right from Kim Chi-woo with three minutes left floated past a hoard of players into the far corner of the net.
The win put the 2002 World Cup semi-finalists top on 11 points, with North Korea one point behind having played one more game.
After a dour first half Australia took the lead in the 66th minute with a header from the unmarked Josh Kennedy. Harry Kewell then made it 2-0 with a 73rd-minute penalty.
"There was a lot of pressure because we knew we had to win," Australia captain Lucas Neill said in a television interview.
"We've sent a statement out to the rest of the group now, and possibly the world, that we might be the first team to qualify."
Australia must wait until their visit to Qatar on June 6 to get the point they need to advance.
Fouzi Aaish's free kick on 52 minutes gave Bahrain a 1-0 win in Manama and condemned Qatar to their fourth defeat in a row.
"The win hasn't sealed third place for us (yet)," said Bahrain coach Milan Macala. "We must put a lot of effort in the next matches to win third place."
Bahrain are third on seven points, with Qatar and Uzbekistan equal bottom on four apiece.
South Korea found it tough against their defensively solid neighbours and almost fell behind soon after the break when Jong Tae-se's header, which appeared to cross the line, was clawed away by keeper Lee Woon-jae.
Their frustrations were compounded when they squandered a series of scoring opportunities, Lee Keun-ho twice the guilty party.
Park Chu-young's 66th-minute blocked shot landed at Lee's feet but he tamely struck the ball into the hands of the goalkeeper. Lee then did exactly the same thing two minutes later to the despair of the packed crowd.
"I expected it would be a one-goal margin," said South Korea coach Huh Jung-moo. "I felt the North were getting better and better."
The Saudis, bidding to reach their fifth successive World Cup finals, took an early lead but were stunned by two UAE goals close to halftime.
The hosts levelled on 70 minutes with an own goal from Fares Juma before grabbing the winner 13 minutes later through Naif Hazazi, who also scored on Saturday to spark a last-gasp victory over Iran.