Asian heavyweights Australia and Japan booked their places in the next round of World Cup qualifying with big wins on Tuesday as China stunned Qatar to bring their campaign back from the dead.
Veteran striker Tim Cahill scored twice as Australia eased past Harry Redknapp’s Jordan 5-1, while Borussia Dortmund’s Shinji Kagawa also netted a double in Japan’s 5-0 win over Syria.
But the night’s big result was in Xi’an, China, where the hosts overcame a lacklustre Qatar 2-0 to move to the brink of the next qualifying phase and a spot at the 2019 Asian Cup.
The result, coupled with the Philippines’ 3-2 upset of North Korea in Manila, makes China odds-on to go through as one of the four best-performing second-placed teams.
“Chinese football is gradually improving,” smiled midfielder Huang Bowen, who opened the scoring in the 57th minute before Wu Lei wrapped it up with two minutes to go.
Qualification would be a major turn-around for China, who sacked French coach Alain Perrin after a disappointing 0-0 draw with Hong Kong in November left their campaign hanging by a thread.
Eight group winners and the four best-performing second-placed teams go through to the third round and also earn a berth at the 2019 Asian Cup in the United Arab Emirates.
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War-torn Syria made it through as one of the best second-placed teams despite the late flurry of goals which consigned them to a 5-0 defeat in Saitama.
A freak own goal from Hamdi Al Masri after 17 minutes put Japan in front, before Kagawa’s double alongside late strikes from Keisuke Honda and Genki Haraguchi gave the scoreline gloss.
Japan ended the second round of qualifiers with 27 goals scored and none conceded from their eight games, but Honda warned the Blue Samurai would face tougher challenges ahead.
“It was a goal to go through qualifying with no goals against so that was satisfying,” AC Milan’s Honda told Japan’s NHK Television.
“But there are still some things we need to work on. We got caught on the counter several times and stronger opponents will make us pay so we need to be wary of that.”
Japan and Australia, the Asian champions, finished top of Group E and B respectively to reach the next stage as they bid for one of the region’s 4.5 qualifying spots for Russia 2018.
In Sydney, Cahill, now 36 and playing for China’s Hangzhou Greentown, struck twice in the first half against Jordan to stretch his record Australian tally to 47 goals in 89 games.
Australia’s other scorers were home-based midfielder Aaron Mooy, Glasgow Celtic’s Tom Rogic and QPR youngster Massimo Luongo, while Bayer Leverkusen’s Robbie Kruse added three assists.
Redknapp, in only his second game with Jordan after being hired to steer them into the next phase, said Asian Cup-holders Australia were a “different class”.
“They had a bit too much quality and they looked a lot fitter than us, they were sharper… there was a big gulf in class tonight,” he told reporters.
South Korea, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Uzbekistan and Thailand are also through to the next phase as the final evening of games unfolds across the region.