Qatar hand South Korea shock defeat; Japan and China waste leads in draws
The progress of Japan to the World Cup finals hit a roadblock on Tuesday evening as a second-half goal from Mahdi Kamil earned Iraq a 1-1 draw that leaves Vahid Halilhodzic's side in an ever-tightening battle for an automatic berth at Russia 2018.
Yuya Osako scored eight minutes into the game in Tehran to put the Japanese ahead. But Mahdi's goal for the already-eliminated Iraqis complicates Japan's road to the finals.
The four-time Asian champions are now just one point clear of Saudi Arabia and Australia at the top of Group B, with just two games remaining. Only the top two teams are guaranteed a place in the finals.
Saudi Arabia and Australia both sit on 16 points after Ange Postecoglou's side defeated the Saudis in Adelaide last week. The Japanese, who still have to play the two teams directly below them, are just a point further ahead.
Osako gave Japan the lead after just eight minutes when he headed Keisuke Honda's corner home. Later in the first half, he had claims for a penalty waved away when he was upended on the edge of the penalty area.
Japan looked to be on the way to a narrow win until 18 minutes from time when Kamil netted following a defensive mix up to give Iraq just their fifth point of the campaign.
In Group A, Qatar reignited their slim hopes of a place in Russia next year as Hassan Al Haydos inspired his team to a remarkable 3-2 win over South Korea in Doha that keeps Jorge Fossati's team in touch with Uzbekistan in third place.
Al Haydos put his side in front in the 25th minute with a curling free kick before unlocking the Korean defence to allow Akram Afif to double his side's lead six minutes into the second half.
Ki Sung-yueng and Hwang Hee-chan scored within eight minutes of each other to peg the Qataris back only for Al Haydos to stroke the ball home 16 minutes from time to keep his nation's World Cup dreams alive for at least one more round of qualifiers.
Victory moves the Qataris above China and into fifth place in the group and Fossati's team are now five points behind Uzbekistan with two games remaining.
United Arab Emirates, who sit in fourth in Group B, missed the opportunity to pull themselves back into the race for a place in Russia when they had to rely on a late goal from Ali Mabkhout to secure a 1-1 draw with Thailand.
Mongkol Tossakrai put the Thais in front in the first competitive game under new coach Milovan Rajevac before Mabkhout's late leveller. The draw between the teams means that the Japanese can now not finish any lower than third in the group.
China, meanwhile, were robbed of a revitalising win by an injury-time free kick by Ahmad Al Salih that saw Syria secure a 2-2 draw with Marcello Lippi's team in the Malaysian city of Malacca.
The hopes of Lippi and his team are now razor-thin, with the Chinese six points behind Uzbekistan in third place in Group A with only two games remaining.
Mahmoud Al Mawas gave Syria the lead 12 minutes into the game. But a Gao Lin penalty in the 68th minute pulled China level before Wu Xi's volley looked to have given his side a much-needed win.
But Al Salih stepped up in added time to curl his free kick around the wall and beyond Zeng Cheng. It keeps the Syrians in fourth in the group, maintaining their own hopes of a first-ever World Cup appearance.
Michael Church has written about Asian football for more than 20 years and mainly covers the Chinese game for ESPN FC. Twitter: @michaelrgchurch