Qatar and surprise package North Korea clinched early wins to move to the top of the two Asian groups in World Cup qualifying.
|Uzbekistan's goalkepeer Ignatiy Nesterov saves, perhaps without knowing too much about it [AFP]
Qatar got off to a flying start in Group One when they pounded Asia's in-form team Uzbekistan 3-0, while North Korea snatched the Group Two lead after beating the struggling United Arab Emirates 2-1 in Abu Dhabi.
Japan had looked set for an emphatic win over Bahrain to get their stuttering campaign in order but conceded two goals in an embarrassing three-minute meltdown for a jittery 3-2 win.
Osasuna midfielder Javad Nekounam scored a late equaliser to earn Iran a 1-1 draw with fellow World Cup regulars Saudi Arabia to take a share of second place in Group Two.
Qatar's campaign has been under a cloud after they fielded an ineligible player in an earlier round but they showed no signs of concern in Doha, putting three goals past the Uzbeks, the top scorers in the competition.
Majdi Siddiq put them ahead on 37 minutes. Magid Hassan added another goal in the 73rd minute before Talal al-Bloushi rounded off the win with four minutes remaining.
"Everything clicked as we had planned," Qatar Uruguayan coach Jorge Fossati said.
"The goals came at the right time, the substitutions were made at the right time. I'm happy with the result."
Qatar are awaiting a ruling by the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS) over whether they breached competition rules by fielding naturalised Brazilian Emerson in a match in March.
North Korea put on a solid defensive display against the UAE and went ahead on 70 minutes when Basheer Saeed put the ball in his own net.
|North Korean players celebrate their win against Bahrain [AFP]
An Chol-hyok cannoned in a superb second goal for the Koreans before Saeed cancelled out his own goal with an 85th-minute deflected strike.
Japan survive Bahrain fightback
Japan, under fire after unconvincing performances in the previous round, did themselves no favours in the dying minutes of a thrilling match in Manama.
Celtic's Shunsuke Nakamura converted a free kick and Yasuhito Endo a penalty to put Japan two up at the break and Kengo Nakamura added another goal with five minutes remaining.
However, Bahrain pulled one back two minutes later through Salman Isa before Tulio headed the ball into his own goal in a dismal end to Japan's match.
Iran earn late draw in Saudi Arabia
|Saudi Arabia's Saad al-Harthi, centre, enjoys the game's opening goal [AFP]
Javad Nekounam scored an 81st-minute equalizer for Iran to draw with Saudi Arabia.
The Saudis were rewarded for an aggressive first half with striker Saad al-Harthi's goal in the 29th minute.
But Saudi Arabia failed to convert three other opportunities.
One was repelled by Iran goalkeeper Mahdi Rahmati and twice shots flew wide.
Iran finally broke Saudi control when Nekounam scored with nine minutes left with a header past goalkeeper Mansour al-Naqi.
To encourage Saudis to attend the match, the entrance fee was waived by the General Presidency for Youth Welfare, the federation that oversees sports.
Thus, King Fahd International Stadium was packed with thousands of Saudis, many of them dressed in green, the color of the national flag.
In a reflection of the uneasy ties between the two countries, Saudis booed when the Iranian national anthem was played.
Relations between overwhelmingly Sunni Muslim Saudi Arabia and non-Arab Iran, where Shiite Muslims are a majority, have been strained for years.
The top two teams in each group earn berths at the 2010 finals in South Africa, with another spot available to the fifth-placed team if they can overcome Oceania champions New Zealand in a playoff.