SEOUL, South Korea — The four power teams of Asian football avoided defeat in their opening World Cup qualifiers, yet none put in performances that will dispel the doubts about the strength of the region's teams following their combined winless record at the 2014 World Cup.
Almost 60,000 saw Japan held to a scoreless draw at home by Singapore, ranked 154 in the world, in a disappointing first competitive game under new coach Vahid Halilhodzic; Iran too was held to a draw against lowly Turkmenistan; while Australia and South Korea — the two finalists from the Asian Cup in January — labored to wins over modest Kyrgyzstan and Myanmar respectively.
Japan, boasting stars such as Keisuke Honda, Shinji Kagawa and Shinji Okazaki, defeated Iraq 4-0 in a lead-up friendly but could not find the net against Singapore. The Blue Samurai are already two points down on what they would have expected in Group E of the second qualifying round, in which 40 teams are split into eight groups of five with first place yielding an automatic spot in the final round along with the four best-performing runners-up.
"I've never seen a situation like this before in my career," said Halilhodzic, appointed in February after Japan's dismissal of Javier Aguirre. "We kept creating chances and the players gave everything to get the win. The only thing that was missing was a goal. It's difficult to accept but there is no need to be despondent."
Singapore, whose coach Bernd Stange said before the game that it would be a "world sensation" if his team took a point from Japan, tops the group with four points from its two games.
Australia enjoyed a stroke of luck in the second minute against Kyrgyzstan. Mile Jedinak's free-kick took a freak bounce in the penalty area and went in. Thereafter, the Asian champion struggled to find any fluency against the committed host and was relieved to come away from Bishkek with a 2-1 win.
"I'm glad it was that sort of game in some sense because it's given the guys a taste of what World Cup qualifying is all about." coach Ange Postecoglou said.
South Korea was relieved to win 2-0 against Myanmar, which had to 'host' the game in Bangkok after recent crowd trouble at home. Uli Stielike's Koreans looked comfortable at the back but sluggish going forward, and both goals came from set pieces. Son Heung-min provided the first for Lee Jae-sung and the Bayer Leverkusen star added a second from a free-kick.
"It's just important to get the three points," Son said. "We are one of the strongest teams in Asia but we know that we will face tough games like tonight. We got the result we wanted and now it's time to look forward."
Myanmar was one of a number of nations forced to host games abroad: Yemen has hosted its home game in Qatar, Palestine in Saudi Arabia, Timor Leste in Malaysia and Afghanistan in Iran. Syria and Iraq will also need to find a second 'home' later in the round.
Yemen lost 2-1 to the Philippines in Qatar due to the ongoing conflict around Sana'a.
"At this moment, we can't play at home because there is a war," Yemen's Czech coach Miroslav Soukup told The Associated Press. "If we could you would see tens of thousands of passionate supporters in the stadium, the atmosphere would be amazing and the situation would be very different. In Doha, everyone is very friendly but this is not our home and we can only use the stadium for official training."
With the major powers struggling, the smaller nations shone. Guam tops Iran's group with six points from the opening two games after beating India 2-1. In Group A, Palestine thrashed Malaysia 6-0 in Kuala Lumpur, and North Korea downed Group H favorite Uzbekistan 4-2 to move level on points with the Philippines.