Japan took a significant stride toward a place at the 2014 World Cup by beating Iraq 1-0 on Tuesday in Group B, while Australia’s campaign suffered a setback when they stumbled to a 2-1 loss to Middle East minnow Jordan.
Lebanon also stunned Iran 1-0 to get their campaign on track in Group A and South Korea managed a 2-2 draw against Uzbekistan to extend their lead in Group A.
Iraq performed creditably after fielding a very inexperienced team, with coach Zico — formerly in charge of Japan — changing the entire starting lineup from the previous qualifier and only using stars Younes Mahmoud and Nashat Akram as second-half substitutes.
The visitors still created some genuine chances, but could not hit back after Ryoichi Maeda’s 25th-minute goal, which resulted from some lax defending. Shinji Okazaki snuck in behind the defense from a throw-in and volleyed in a cross that an unmarked Maeda headed in from close range.
“We knew if we played our brand of football we could get the result we wanted,” Japan coach Alberto Zaccheroni said.
“We’re happy to get the three points as we want to qualify as soon as possible,” he added.
Needing to finish in the top-two to automatically qualify for Brazil, Japan moved six points clear on top of the standings after four of eight games.
Jordan is second with four points, followed by Australia, Qatar and Oman on two.
Australia have played in three World Cups and are one of the favorites alongside Japan to automatically qualify. However, its aging lineup has failed to deliver, settling for two draws and the embarrassing loss to Jordan.
Jordan has never reached a World Cup and are ranked 87th in the world, but opened the scoring courtesy of a 50th-minute penalty from Hassan Abdul Fattah after Australia’s Matt Mckay tackled Oday al-Saifi.
They doubled their lead in the 72nd minute when al-Saifi penetrated the Australia defense and passed to Amer Deeb, who scored.
Australia pulled a goal back in the 85th, when Archie Thompson stole the ball just outside the area and fired a low shot past diving ’keeper Amer Shafi.
In Tashkent, Uzbekistan was in need of a victory after gaining only a point in two matches to sit bottom of Group A.
They took the early lead through an own-goal from Ki Sung-yuengi in the 13th minute.
South Korea drew level thanks to Kwak Tae-hwi in the 44th and then took the lead after Lee Dong-gook scored in the 58th. However, Uzbekistan’s Sanzhar Tursunov leveled just a minute later.
Both teams pressed in the final half hour, with each having chances to win it in injury-time.