Asia: Big guns sit pretty in qualifying

October 16, 2008

BANGKOK, Oct 16 (Reuters) - After stuttering in earlier rounds, Asia's top sides look to have finally found their feet in World Cup qualifying, with the highest-ranked teams leading the pack on the final stretch to South Africa 2010.

Only Japan have yet to find top gear, despite sitting comfortably in second place behind Australia in their group.

The Socceroos thumped Qatar 4-0 to go top of Group One on Wednesday, while 2002 World Cup semi-finalists South Korea routed the United Arab Emirates 4-1 to grab the Group Two lead.

Iran beat North Korea 2-1 to move second behind South Korea, followed by Saudi Arabia.

Japan still trail the Australians after an uninspiring 1-1 home draw with Uzbekistan, whose once promising campaign now looks to have fizzled out.

Australia coach Pim Verbeek praised his players for their perfect start to the final round of World Cup qualifying, their first campaign in Asia.

"We're very happy. Two games, six points, five goals scored, zero goals against -- not bad," the Dutchman told reporters.

"The goals were fantastic, the way we played, we controlled the game completely."

The European-based duo of Park Ji-sung and Lee Young-pyo had a big impact in South Korea's win, which gave them the advantage on goal difference in arguably the toughest of the two groups.

"They played well, but so did everybody," said coach Huh Jung-moo, whose side are chasing a place at their seventh-successive finals.

"There are no such things as weak teams at this stage and we have to build on this result and work hard."

While second in their group, Wednesday's draw increased the pressure on under-fire Japan coach coach Takeshi Okada, who has had little breathing space since taking over from Bosnian Ivica Osim last year.

Okada could be on borrowed time and his side's lukewarm performances have impressed few people in Japan, with Shunsuke Nakamura accusing the team of "fancy" but ineffective football.

"It's okay to play ugly sometimes," said the Celtic midfielder. "It doesn't matter if it's not pretty -- we need to be more direct in front of goal."

The top two teams from each of the two groups qualify automatically for the 2010 World Cup.