By Jim Armstrong
The Associated Press
SAITAMA, Japan (AP) — Japan and Iran showed Sunday why they are among the favorites in Asia to qualify in advancing to the 2014 World Cup.
Ryoichi Maeda and Shinji Okazaki scored second-half goals to lead Japan to a 3-0 victory over Oman in the first round of the final qualifying stage, while Iran stunned Uzbekistan 1-0 with a goal in the dying seconds of stoppage time.
In other matches, 2022 World Cup host Qatar beat Lebanon 1-0 and Jordan held Iraq to a 1-1 draw in a clash of Middle East neighbors.
Maeda gave Japan a 2-0 lead in the 52nd minute of the Group B match when he received a pass from Shinji Kagawa, ran to his left, and slid the ball under the outstretched arms of goalkeeper Ali Al Habsi.
Okazaki, who plays for German side Stuttgart, put the result beyond doubt three minutes later, gathering his own rebound and beating Al Habsi from close range.
CSKA Moscow midfielder Keisuke Honda opened the scoring in the 12th minute, taking a superb cross from Inter Milan defender Yuto Nagatomo and beating Al Habsi with a left-footed shot.
“This was an important win for us,” Japan coach Alberto Zaccheroni said. “We wanted to get off on the right foot. The team was able to stay focused the entire match and there was a great atmosphere here tonight.”
The top two teams in both of the five-team qualifying groups will secure an automatic spot at Brazil. The third-place teams advance to a playoff.
Honda missed the entire third round of qualifying with a knee injury. He returned to the national side in a friendly against Azerbaijan last month for the first time since scoring in a 3-0 win over South Korea last year.
Japan and Australia will be strong favorites to advance out of Group B. Japan is seeking its fifth straight appearance at the World Cup.
Oman, without key defender Hussain Mudhaffar and striker Hassan Rabee’a, rarely tested Japan goalkeeper Eiji Kawashima.
In Tashkent, Mohammad Reza Khalatbari scored in stoppage time to give Iran a 1-0 win at Uzbekistan. Substitute Karim Ansarifard broke down the right before passing to Khalatbari, who found the net in the fourth minute of added time.
Iran was lucky to win the Group A match, given Uzbekistan had the better chances for most of the match and looked to have scored in the 74th minute when the ball appeared to cross the line.
Uzbekistan captain Odil Ahmedov knocked the ball into the net, but Iran defender Jalal Hosseini, who was inside the goal mouth, managed to kick it away. TV replays showed the ball had clearly crossed the line, but none of the three referees awarded a goal and play continued.
Uzbekistan coach Vadim Abromov said a goal should have been awarded, but is focused on the next match against Lebanon with his team looking to make its first appearance at the World Cup.
“We scored a goal in the second half, but the referees didn’t see it. Iran had two chances and won it,” Abramov said. “I don’t know what did happen with us in the last minutes. Sometimes, we concede goals at the end of the match. We lost the game, but it is not a tragedy.”
Iran coach Carlos Queiroz looks to have plenty of work to do to ensure Iran advances, along with fellow favorite South Korea. His team appeared sluggish for most of the match and struggled to keep up with Uzbekistan’s attacking style.
Iran is attempting to reach the World Cup for the fourth time. This would be their first since 2006.
“Uzbekistan had several chances,” Queiroz said. “I knew Uzbekistan would go forward in the last minutes. That’s why we changed our tactics and tried to score from counterattacks. We did it and our changes brought us three points.”
In the other Group A match, Qatar downed host Lebanon 1-0 Sunday to bolster its chances of qualifying for the World Cup.
Lebanon came into the match with the momentum, reaching the final stages of World Cup qualifying for the first time. Qatar, set to host the 2022 World Cup, drew 0-0 against Palestine and lost 2-1 to Albania in its past two friendlies.
In the other Group B match, Iraq midfielder Nashat Akram scored in the 14th minute with a solo effort from outside the box.
Jordan striker Ahmad Hayel Ibrahim took advantage of some poor goalkeeping to level in the 43rd minute.
Iraq is aiming to qualify for the World Cup for the first time since 1986. With Brazilian great Zico at the helm, Iraq had impressed recently, collecting five wins, despite being required to play two of its home matches on neutral turf. (end)