SYDNEY — Having everything to play for on Tuesday, Australia, Iran and South Korea all secured berths at the 2014 World Cup on a dramatic final day of Asian qualifying. They join Japan which was the first nation to qualify.
Australia beat Iraq 1-0, waiting until the 83rd minute before Josh Kennedy headed home the winner that secured second spot in Group B.
Iran booked its place with a disciplined counter-attacking game that produced a 1-0 win at South Korea. While Iran finished top of Group A, South Korea only secured second place by virtue of goal difference after finishing level on points with Uzbekistan, which won 5-1 at home against Qatar.
Uzbekistan scored all five goals in the second half in a storming finish that threatened to tip South Korea out of second spot. But the Uzbeks ran out of time to further boost their goal difference and finished third. They will now go into a playoff against Jordan, which beat Oman 1-0.
Australia began the game knowing a win over Iraq would put them through to a third-straight World Cup appearance, but on a cold and wet night in Sydney, the hosts struggled to break down some resolute defending by a second-string Iraq outfit.
The goal finally came thanks to a bold substitution by Australia coach Holger Osieck, who brought on
Kennedy for talisman and regular scorer Tim Cahill.
Mark Bresciano laid on the final pass, chipping into the area to find Kennedy, who calmly headed the ball behind scrambling Iraq goalkeeper Noor Sabri, delighting the 80,532 home fans.
A draw would have left Australia at the mercy of the outcome of the Jordan-Oman game later in the day, with a likely relegation to third place in the group and a further playoff round.
Instead, Kennedy’s goal meant Australia became the third team to book its place for the 2014 tournament after Japan and host Brazil.
“I’m proud of everybody,” captain Lucas Neill said. “It’s been a really tough campaign. We’ve stuck at it, showed mental strength.
“Sorry, it wasn’t pretty. But we’ve beaten what was in front of us and pushed ourselves on to a very exciting tournament.”
The drama was even more pronounced in Group A, where South Korea, Iran and Uzbekistan all went into the final group games with hope of direct qualification.
Iran pulled off a memorable win to top the group. The goal came in the 60th minute as King Young-gwon failed to clear a speculative ball forward down Iran’s right flank. Reza Ghoochannejad stripped him of possession, sprinted clear and curled a well-placed left-foot shot beyond the reach of the goalkeeper and into the net.
South Korea players were aware Uzbekistan was rapidly closing the goal-difference gap in the simultaneous match in Tashkent, and pushed hard for an equalizer that never came.
“When Korea created opportunities, our players fought for our lives,” Iran coach Carlos Queiroz said. “The team played with fantastic team spirit with great practical discipline and enormous determination.”
The win set off wild celebrations across Iran, where the government had given a rare approval for supporters to spill into the streets. In separate messages, outgoing president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and president-elect Hasan Rowhani congratulated the team for reaching the World Cup for a fourth time and first since 2006.
Even as the final whistle sounded in Ulsan, South Korea’s squad and fans did not know if they had held onto second place, and had to spend a couple of minutes in suspense while the Uzbekistan
match played out, before knowing they too were through to Brazil 2014.
“We qualified but didn’t finish with a satisfactory result,” said outgoing coach Choi Kang-hee. “Today was a disappointing defeat but the players gave their best and I wish them luck in Brazil.”
Uzbekistan’s hopes looked at an end when they trailed 1-0 at halftime against Qatar, with the visitors’ goal coming from Abdulqadir Ilyas.
However, the hosts turned on a barnstorming second-half performance in a bid to reach their first World Cup, with two goals from Bahodir Nasimov and others from Oleg Zoteev, Odil Ahmedov, and Ulugbek Bakaev. While the home fans urged the team on, with a first-ever World Cup spot tantalizingly close, the result in Ulsan meant the Uzbeks were never likely to overhaul South Korea.
Even if Uzbekistan managed to get square on goal difference, South Korea had the edge in goals scored and head-to-head record.
“It is very unfortunate for us as we wanted to qualify for World Cup and celebrate with our fans. It is a shame that we could not achieve our aim,” Uzbekistan coach Mirdjalal Kasimov said.
“We couldn’t score in the first half as the Qatar goalkeeper played very well,” he said. “We made changes in the second half and that’s why we scored five goals, but Iran beat Korea. We will continue to battle in the next round, although we need a little time to recover.”
Jordan stunned Oman to book its place in the Asian zone playoff and keep its hopes alive of reaching its first World Cup.
Oman, coming off a victory over Iraq, seemed the more poised side in the first half. Qasim Said sent in a header in the eighth minute which was saved by Jordan goalkeeper Amer Shafi and Ismail al-Ajmi fired a shot that just missed the left post in the 26th.
Jordan began pressing in the second half and was rewarded in the 57th minute when Ahmad Hayel Ibrahim scored with a diving header. The goal set off a frenzy in the packed stadium, with fans waving Jordanian flags.
Jordan finished third behind Japan and Australia which qualified outright in Group B.
Oman, which only needed a draw to reach the playoff, was let down by its finishing. Saad al-Mukhaini
had the best chance in the second, a blistering drive in the 83rd minute that was tipped over by Shafi.
Jordan and Uzbekistan will meet Sept. 6 and 10. The winner of that series will then play the fifth-place team from South America over two legs for a place at the World Cup. That intercontinental playoff is scheduled Nov. 15 and 19.
“This is a great win for Jordan,” Jordan Football Association Vice President Salah Sabra said. “We are looking forward to getting ready for Uzbekistan after this crucial win against Oman. Jordan is prepared for all scenarios at this stage.”