Thailand joy at last, South Korea and Japan win
By Peter Rutherford
SEOUL (Reuters) - Thailand's national soccer team gave the country a lift by holding Asian champions Australia to a shock 2-2 draw in World Cup qualifying on Tuesday while South Korea and Japan took the heat off their under-fire coaches with matching 2-1 wins.
The Koreans gave coach Uli Stielike the perfect 62nd birthday gift with a come-from-behind victory over Uzbekistan in Seoul that lifted them into second spot in Group A behind Iran, who were held to a 0-0 draw by Syria.
Japan coach Vahid Halilhodzic took the bold step of dropping Keisuke Honda and Shinji Kagawa to the bench against Group B leaders Saudi Arabia in Saitama and the gamble paid off big time as the 'Blue Samurai' picked up three crucial points.
That lifted Japan into second, level on 10 points with the Saudis, while Australia slipped to third, a point behind with five games left to play.
The top two sides in Group A and B qualify automatically for the 2018 World Cup in Russia while the third-placed teams meet to decide who goes into a CONCACAF-Asian Zone playoff for a place at the finals.
The Thai FA had originally sought to have the match moved out of the country as a mark of respect for their monarch but when that request was denied it told fans to wear sombre clothes and banned drums, trumpets and flags from the stadium.
However, that ban on "joyful activities" was lifted early this month and home fans took full advantage as their side claimed their first point of the final qualifying round.
Two penalties from Australia skipper Mile Jedinak were cancelled out by two goals, one from the spot, by Thailand's Teerasil Dangda.
OWN WORST ENEMY
Socceroos coach Ange Postecoglou said his side had been careless in possession.
"We have to give credit to Thailand, they were up for the game and rose to the occasion," he told FIFA's website.
"Sometimes we were our own worst enemy and gave the ball away cheaply, allowing them back into the game."
Japan capitalised on Australia's slip-up with their victory over Saudi Arabia but were almost punished for failing to put the game away.
A controversial Hiroshi Kiyotake penalty and Genki Haraguchi's late strike put Japan 2-0 up before Saudi Arabia pulled one back through Omar Hawsawi in the 90th minute.
Halilhodzic was relieved to get the win over a strong Saudi side.
"We have had some difficulties lately, but the players’ courage and determination has delivered us this very important result,” he said.
In Seoul, Uzbekistan's Marat Bikmaev pounced on goalkeeper Kim Seung-gyu's poor clearance to curl the ball into an empty net from 25 metres and give his side the lead, but Korea fought back through Nam Tae-hee and Koo Ja-cheol in the second half.
Korea are on now 10 points from five games, one behind Iran and one ahead of Uzbekistan.
Italian Marcello Lippi's first game as China coach ended in a 0-0 draw with Qatar in Kunming, seriously damaging both team's hopes of reaching the finals in 2018.
(Editing by Ed Osmond)