South Korea draw with Iran, miss chance to seal 2018 spot
South Korea squandered a chance to book their spot at next year's World Cup finals on Thursday after a 0-0 draw with 10-man Iran left their qualification hopes precariously balanced.
With Uzbekistan losing 1-0 in China, the Koreans would have sealed Group A's second automatic berth for Russia but could find no way past an impregnable Iran, who have not conceded a goal in 12 straight World Cup qualifiers dating back to November 2015.
Korea's Jang Hyun-soo came closest to breaking the deadlock in the 19th minute at a heaving Seoul World Cup Stadium when his glancing header from inside the six-yard box dropped inches wide of goalkeeper Ali Beiranvand's left-hand post.
While Swansea City midfielder Ki Sung-yueng was not judged fit enough to play, Korea's talismanic wide man Son Heung-min, who fractured his forearm in June, was in the line-up, although he was given little time or space by Iran's defence.
Iran, who have already qualified as group winners, were happy to cede possession to the home side and invited pressure, hoping to punish Korea on the counter-attack.
The game took a nasty turn in the 50th minute when Iran's Saeid Ezatolahi was shown a red card for stamping on the head of Korean defender Kim Min-jae.
With the man advantage and some 60,000 fans roaring them on, the Koreans threw men forward in search of the winner but Iran held firm until the final whistle.
Iran coach Carlos Queiroz said the match was a "beautiful football fight" and praised his players for digging in after being reduced to 10 men.
Queiroz, who has guided Iran to back-to-back World Cup finals, added that he had been impressed with the Koreans and had even asked for Son's shirt.
Shin Tae-yong, who was taking charge of Korea for the first time since replacing the fired Uli Stielike in July, was confident his side would still take second place.
"I thought it would be difficult for us tonight if we if we lost the first goal, so we played carefully rather than aggressively," Shin told reporters. "I think that strategy worked ok.
"We had prepared for this game with no other thought than to win, so we'll do the same for Uzbekistan."
The result leaves Korea in second place on 14 points behind Iran, with Syria and Uzbekistan tied for third on 12.
The Koreans travel to Tashkent to play Uzbekistan in their final qualifier on Tuesday with a victory for either side likely to earn the second spot.
Syria must beat Iran in Tehran to have any chance of the automatic berth.
The third-placed teams in each of the two Asia groups play each other in a two-legged playoff in October with the aggregate winner facing the fourth-placed team from the Central and North America (CONCACAF) qualifying in November.
Japan book ticket to Russia with 2-0 win over Australia
Japan booked their place next year's World Cup final with an emphatic 2-0 win over Australia in Saitama on Thursday that took their Asian rivals' hopes of qualifying for Russia out of their own hands.
Takuma Osano scored four minutes before the break and 21-year-old midfielder Yosuke Ideguchi covered himself in glory with a sumptuous finish in the 82nd minute as the Samurai Blue sealed a sixth straight appearance in the global showpiece.
Japan are now assured of finishing top of Group B in Asian qualifying before their final match away to second-placed Saudi Arabia, a match that Australia will watch nervously.
Level with Saudi Arabia on 16 points but two in arrears on goal difference, the Socceroos will hope for a handsome win over Thailand in their final qualifier and for Japan to beat or hold the Saudis to a draw.
With Australia's final match in Melbourne on Tuesday scheduled first, Saudi Arabia will know exactly what they need to do to snatch the second direct ticket to Russia when they take the field against Japan in Jeddah.
The third-placed team faces two playoffs to reach the finals, starting with the third-placed side in the other Asian group.
Japan join Iran, Brazil and hosts Russia in the 32-team tournament, which will be held from June 14 to July 15 next year.
Vahid Halilhodzic's Japan inflicted Australia's first defeat of the final phase of qualifying while also ending their own winless streak against the Socceroos in World Cup qualifiers.
Australia lost captain Mile Jedinak to a groin injury in the lead-up and suffered a further blow with in-form midfielder Aaron Mooy a late withdrawal due to illness.
But crushed coach Ange Postecoglou was not reaching for excuses.
"The team we put out there was certainly good enough to get the job done," he said. "Tonight's result is on me, it's not on the players. We had our moments but we never really got going."
Tomi Juric started on the bench after suffering an injury at club training in Switzerland, leaving winger Robbie Kruse to slot into the lone striker's spot.
Halilhodzic left Keisuke Honda and Shinji Kagawa on the bench but hardly needed his marquee men.
In a frantic first half, there were few genuine chances with Mathew Leckie's deflected shot coming off the post in the 38th minute the closest to breaking the deadlock.
It was a huge scare for the home side at Saitama Stadium, but the packed stands exploded minutes later when Yuto Nagatomo floated a sumptuous cross from the left and Asano ghosted behind the defensive line to volley home.
Unable to breach Japan's well-organised defence, Postecoglou threw 37-year-old Tim Cahill on in the 70th minute to win his 101st cap but Japan's long-time nemesis was unable to exert an influence.
Instead, it was youngster talent Ideguchi, playing his third international, who snatched the spotlight in the final minutes, charging past Jackson Irvine and unleashing a blistering strike that gave keeper Mat Ryan no chance.
"I was just hoping to get the shot on target and I am glad it went in," Ideguchi told Japanese media.
"The coach decided to play me on this big stage and so I came into the match determined to deliver results and that led to the goal."
Khrbin double ends Qatar's World Cup hopes, Syria stay alive
Omar Khrbin struck twice as Syria notched up a 3-1 win over Qatar that ended the 2022 World Cup hosts' hopes of qualifying for next year's finals while ensuring their own attempt to reach Russia stays alive for at least one more game.
Qatar will become the first hosts in the post-World War Two era to make their debut appearance at the World Cup on home soil after a disappointing campaign that has seen them amass just seven points out of nine games so far.
Al Hilal striker Khrbin gave Syria the lead in the seventh minute when he struck from outside the area, but 10 minutes before the break Ali Assadalla levelled for the Qataris as they sought the win required to keep their slim hopes alive.
Nine minutes after the restart, however, Khrbin ensured those chances were dismissed completely when he smashed his shot past Saad Al Sheeb, beating the goalkeeper at his near post with a fierce shot.
Mahmoud Al Mawas scored five minutes into injury time for Syria to put the result beyond doubt.
With one game remaining, Felix Sanchez's side cannot finish in one of the two automatic qualifying places for Russia or take third place in the group, which brings with it a place in a series of playoffs.
Syria's victory in a "home" match played in Malaysia kept them in contention to seal their first-ever appearance at the World Cup, however.
Forced to play all of their "home" matches on neutral venues due to the ongoing security situation at home, the Syrians have proven to be remarkably resilient and the win moves them into third place in Group A, ahead of Uzbekistan on goal difference.
Syria face Iran, who have already qualified for next year's finals, on Tuesday in Tehran and victory over Carlos Queiroz's side could be enough - should other results go their way - to secure a place in Russia next year.