Australia made a confident start to the third round of Asian World Cup qualifying with a 2-0 victory over Iraq on Thursday, while United Arab Emirates beat Japan 2-1 and a late penalty handed Saudi Arabia a 1-0 win over Thailand in Group B.
Tomi Juric created one goal and scored another inside six second-half minutes to give Asian champions Australia a comfortable victory.
The Socceroos, aiming for a fourth straight appearance at the finals in Russia in 2018, always looked the stronger side but it was not until just before the hour mark that midfielder Massimo Luongo broke the deadlock at the Perth Oval.
There were signs that the breakthrough was coming when Aaron Mooy hit the crossbar from the edge of the area and Juric almost immediately contrived to miss an open goal from close range.
The Socceroos did not spurn a third chance in three minutes, however, and Luongo smashed the ball into the roof of the net after Juric had beaten his defender and drilled the ball across the face of the goal.
Juric made further amends for his miss after 64 minutes when Mark Milligan flicked on a Mooy corner and the Luzern striker poked the ball into the net from three metres.
“We put in a good performance tonight, there could have been a few more on our side but unfortunately they didn’t go in,” said Juric who added he had been caught “off guard” by the chance he spurned.
“I’m glad I got on the scoresheet tonight with a goal and an assist but more importantly we got three points.”
The Socceroos, favourites along with Japan to book the two automatic qualifying spots from Group B, dominated the rest of the match but were unable to add to their goal tally.
Iraq, who have had just one finals campaign back in 1986, were always a threat on the break and had what looked like a legitimate penalty claim in the first half when Brad Smith pulled back the lively Ahmed Yaseen.
Australia had the best chances before the break and Mathew Leckie almost opened the scoring from Smith’s cross in the 28th minute only for his looping header to spin off the upright.
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Ahmed Khalil struck twice as UAE punished Japan for spurning a host of chances by emerging 2-1 victors at the Saitama Stadium.
Japan took the lead through a Keisuke Honda header, but the Emiratis struck back nine minutes later through Khalil.
The Asian player of the year doubled his tally early in the second-half, converting a penalty to clinch the game for the visitors.
In the other group B game, a late penalty from Saudi Arabia’s Nawaf Al Abid sealed a 1-0 win over Thailand in Riyadh, extending the hosts’ unbeaten run in the World Cup qualifying phase.
Sarach Yooyen was guilty of a clumsy challenge on the edge of the penalty area, and the resulting spot kick was calmly slotted home by Al Abid, who sent Thailand goalkeeper Kawin Thamsatchanan the wrong way.
Thailand had a goal disallowed minutes before the final whistle after Tristan Do’s effort was ruled offside.
Australia, who top of the group on goal difference, next face second-placed UAE. Thailand host Japan, while Iraq play third-placed Saudi Arabia in the next round of fixtures.
The top two in Group A and B qualify for the World Cup in Russia while the third-placed teams meet to decide who goes into a CONCACAF-Asian Zone playoff for a place at the finals.