Japan and Australia shared the spoils in Asian World Cup qualifying yesterday but there was a crucial win for North Korea, who beat Saudi Arabia to leave Nasser al Johar’s side in serious trouble.
The Socceroos will feel fortunate to come away from Yokohama with a 0-0 draw after soaking up long periods of pressure, but it leaves them well positioned in Group 1 with 10 points from four games.
With three of their remaining four games at home, Australia will be confident of making their second consecutive World Cup finals.
Japan remain hot on their heels with two wins and two draws for eight points, while Mahmood Abdulrahman scored a 94th minute winner for Bahrain in their 1-0 victory over Uzbekistan in Tashkent.
It leaves the Uzbeks virtually out of the running with just one point, while Bahrain remain alive on four points, alongside Qatar.
The hosts, spurred by a capacity crowd at Tashkent’s 25,000-capacity Pakhtakor stadium, seized the initiative from the start but failed to create any serious threat.
Bahrain were happy to sit back, soak up the pressure and go on the counter-attack — a policy they continued even after Uzbekistan upped the tempo in a second half that saw the visitors pinned back in their own area.
Uzbekistan’s lack of killer instinct in front of goal would prove their downfall in the match, which looked to be heading for a goalless draw until Bahrain struck in the dying moments.
In the fourth minute of injury time Bahrain were awarded a free kick and Abdulrahman’s well-struck 20m drive found its way into the net over Uzbekistan ’keeper Ignatiy Nesterov.
Only the top two teams from each group qualify for South Africa while the third-placed teams play each other with the winner facing Oceania champions New Zealand for the final World Cup berth.
In Pyongyang, North Korea’s drive towards their first World Cup finals since 1966 stayed on track with a vital 1-0 win over Saudi Arabia, leaving their opponents with a massive uphill task to qualify.
Mun In-guk was the North Korean hero, toe-poking the ball under Saudi keeper Waleed Abdullah in the 29th minute to put his side on seven points in Group 2 after four games.
The Saudis, who have made the last four World Cup finals, are now in big trouble with just four points and four games to play, starting with a tough trip to Tehran next month to face Iran in a must-win match.
In Tehran yesterday, Manchester United star Park Ji-sung came to South Korea’s rescue with an 81st minute strike to cancel out Javad Nekounam’s goal to give them a battling 1-1 draw with Iran.
Group leaders South Korea now have eight points while Iran slip to third place on six points behind North Korea. The United Arab Emirates already look dead and buried with just one point.
On a chilly night in Yokohama, the home team got off to the better start, with striker Keiji Tamada getting the first shot on target in the fourth minute.
Celtic midfielder Shunsuke Nakamura was a lurking danger and unleashed a trademark shot only to see it go just over, then Yuto Nagatomo was hauled down in the 36th minute but Yasuhito Endo couldn’t capitalize from the free-kick.
The Australians surprisingly had to wait until first-half injury time for their first clear-cut shot when Everton dangerman Tim Cahill went close.
But they came out with a more aggressive attitude after the break and piled on the pressure before Japan fought back with substitute forward Yoshito Okubo and Endo hitting sizzling shots to keep goalkeeper Mark Schwarzer busy.