Iran's victory means the pressure is off - for now - on coach Afshin Ghotbi [AFP] 
As expected Japan and Iran secured places at the 2011 Asian Cup finals with away qualifying victories but Australia failed to join them after a brave fightback by Kuwait.

Japan found themselves 2-0 down after 40 minutes in Yemen but a hat-trick from substitute Sota Hirayama, finished in the 79th minute, completed a brave 3-2 comeback win and booked a place at the finals for the Blue Samurai.

Japan top Group A on 12 points from five games with Bahrain, who also went through in second place after they thrashed Hong Kong 4-0 at home, level on points in second.

Well-deserved

It was well-deserved victory for the tiny Gulf nation who had mourned a second failed attempt to make it to the World Cup finals following a disappointing 1-0 loss to New Zealand in the Asia-Oceania play-off in November.

The Bahrainis were missing the bus to that showpiece event for the second time, having lost to Trinidad and Tobago in another play-off four years ago.

Wednesday was Bahrain's second successive victory by a four-goal margin following a similar result against Yemen which came just four days after the World Cup qualifying playoff defeat to New Zealand at Wellington.

Bahrain coach Milan Macala was a happy man at the end of the match.

"It was a good match but I think my players settled for the half-time score. But the main thing was to qualify and now that we have achieved it, we are not bothered too much about the final scoreline," said the Czech.

The top-two teams from each group qualify for the finals in Qatar next year.

Last-gasp equaliser

Australia were on course to join them after racing into a 2-0 lead in Kuwait after goals from Luke Wilkshire and Dean Heffernan in the first five minutes but substitute Addul Aziz Al Enezi and Yousuf Nasser struck before half-time to deny the Socceroos in a 2-2 draw.

"The last minutes of the first half we lost control of the midfield, but the second half we were much better organised," Australian coach Pim Verbeek told Australia's Fox Sports.

"A little bit more sharpness in one-on-one situations and we could have won the game."

Kuwait lead Group B on eight points from five games, ahead of Australia courtesy of a better head-to-head record with Oman, who beat Indonesia 2-1 in Jakarta, third on seven.

A point for Kuwait in their final match in Muscat against Oman in March will book their place in the finals with Australia also needing just a point at home to Indonesia, who are out of contention.

Breathing space

Some questionable refereeing decisions overshadowed Iran's 3-1 victory over Singapore which booked their place in Qatar and eased the pressure on coach Afshin Ghotbi, who had fans handing out posters with his face crossed out before kick-off.

"I hope that everybody believes that the referee wasn't the difference," Ghotbi said.

Asian Cup results

Wednesday January 6

 Yemen 2-3 Japan
 Bahrain 4-0 Hong Kong
 Kuwait 2-2 Australia
 Indonesia 1-2 Oman
 UAE 1-0 Malaysia 
 Lebanon 1-1 Vietnam
 China 0-0 Syria
 Thailand 0-0 Jordan
 Singapore 1-3 Iran

"I think it was the quality of the Iranian team."

"We were able to score some wonderful goals.''

"We've set a target to win the Asian Cup,'' he continued.

Group E winners Iran have 10 points from five games with the race for the runners-up spot wide-open after Thailand and Jordan played out a 0-0 draw in rain-soaked Bangkok.

One point separates the three remaining teams in the group with Thai coach Bryan Robson, the former England and Manchester United captain, confident his team can go to Iran and get the result they need in March.

Robson, a former England captain, reacted strongly when asked if Thailand's chances of qualification had slipped away.

He said Iran could be beaten, even in front of a massive Azadi Stadium crowd famed for its hostility towards visiting teams.

"It's in our own hands now. Everyone says Iran are a super race and in this part of the world you can't beat them, but I don't look at it like that," Robson said.

China sealed their place at the finals after a 0-0 draw with Group D leaders and already qualified Syria was enough following third-placed Vietnam's 1-1 draw at bottom-side Lebanon.

In Group C the United Arab Emirates made coach Srecko Katanec's first competitive match in charge a memorable one as they scored an injury time winner to beat Malaysia 1-0 and qualify for the finals.

Source: Agencies