Asian big guns Australia and Japan left it perilously late before snatching vital winners in World Cup qualifying on Friday, as South Korea got off to a roaring start against Lebanon.
Australia were just four minutes from a humiliating home draw with Thailand before Alex Brosque’s late strike, while Japan had to wait until the 94th minute to overcome fierce rivals North Korea 1-0.
China also had to fight back from a goal down before beating Singapore 2-1 at home in former Real Madrid boss Jose Antonio Camacho’s first game in charge.
However, South Korea hit six past stunned Lebanon in Goyang to take a decisive first step on the road to Brazil 2014 as Asia’s top-ranked sides entered the lengthy qualifying process.
Aussie goalkeeper Mark Schwarzer admitted the Socceroos’ 2-1 win felt more like a defeat against unfancied Thailand, who lie about 98 places lower in the FIFA rankings.
Teerasil Dangda gave the visitors a shock lead on 15 minutes and Australia were not back on terms until Josh Kennedy’s 58th minute strike, before Brosque’s last-gasp decider relieved Brisbane’s Suncorp Stadium crowd.
Japan put their fans through even greater agony before defender Maya Yoshida rose to head home a cross from a short corner on 94 minutes as the Asian champions’ quality finally told.
Japan had dominated play despite missing midfield duo Keisuke Honda and Kengo Nakamura through injury and coach Alberto Zaccheroni said the result was a just reward for their patient play.
North Korea cursed referee Ali al-Badwawi after Pak Kwang-Ryong was controversially sent off for a sliding challenge on Yasuhito Endo on 83 minutes, leaving the visitors to defend with 10 men.
Meanwhile, striker Maksim Shatskikh’s 72nd-minute goal gave Uzbekistan a 1-0 away win against Tajikistan, who are only in the draw after Syria were disqualified for fielding an ineligible player.
However, Iraq got off to a disastrous start as they were beaten 2-0 at home by Jordan.
Elsewhere, the United Arab Emirates were beaten by Kuwait 3-2, Oman and Saudi Arabia played to a scoreless draw, Iran blanked Indonesia 3-0 and Bahrain and Qatar drew 0-0.
See stories on page 18