KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia (AP) The continental big four of Japan, Australia, Iran and South Korea all collected six valuable points over five days to remain on course for the next stage of Asian qualifying for the 2018 World Cup.
Last week the quartet recorded convincing home wins against modest opposition but faced tough road trips on Tuesday in a round that finished in fireworks.
Asian Cup champion Australia had a 3-0 win in Tajikistan and the biggest worry, apart from the ongoing political unrest in the Central Asian nation, was perhaps the ongoing standoff between the players union and Football Federation Australia over the terms of a new collective bargaining agreement. A few hours before kick-off, the Australian woman's team boycotted a key practice session ahead of a two-match tour to the United States. That industrial action came in the wake of the men refusing to undertake any commercial duties prior to last week's World Cup qualifier against Bangladesh in Perth.
That was temporarily forgotten in Tajikistan as Tim Cahill scored twice to give the Socceroos control of the game and Group B with a third straight win. The big test comes in October as Australia travels to second-place Jordan, scene of a loss in a qualification game ahead of the 2014 World Cup. Only the winner of the eight groups is guaranteed to progress to the next stage of qualifying, along with the four best runners-up.
''It's a great result but I thought the performance was really good too,'' Australia head coach Ange Postecoglou said in a TV interview. ''We controlled the game from the start, we didn't get our reward in the first half and we probably lacked a bit of a clinical edge. I thought the last half-hour we could have had a couple more. It was a real dominant performance.''
Asian Cup runner-up South Korea had failed to win in its three previous visits to Lebanon but a 3-0 victory reflected the dominance of a team that was without the most expensive player in Asian soccer history because Son Heung-min had returned to England to finalize his transfer to Tottenham Hotspur. Two goals in three first-half minutes set the scene and Kwon Chang-hoon, a rising star of the team, added a third in the second half.
''There was a difficult patch in the last 10 minutes or so but, basically, we controlled the game from the start,'' coach Uli Stielike said. ''We are progressing as a team but there is still a lot of work to do.''
Japan's stars were on target in a 6-0 win over Afghanistan on neutral turf at Tehran. Striker Shinji Okazaki and Borussia Dortmund's Shinji Kagawa both scored twice while Keisuke Honda of AC Milan managed one. Japan has seven points, two behind Syria in Group E. The team from war-torn Syria has scored 13 goals without conceding in its opening three wins. Iran leads Group D with seven points after a 3-0 win over India in Bangalore.
There was controversy in Kuala Lumpur as the Group A match between Malaysia and Saudi Arabia was abandoned in the 88th minute. With Saudi Arabia leading 2-1, a section of fans in the Shah Alam Stadium let off flares and fireworks, causing players from both teams to leave the field.
''It is shameful,'' interim Malaysia coach Ong Kim Swee said of the incident, ''but the Malaysian players gave a good account - they were cohesive as a team and we almost pulled off an upset.''
Sanctions are sure to follow the crowd disturbance. ''It is up to FIFA to decide later. We have to bear the consequences,'' Kim Swee said.
Kim Swee was appointed last week following a 10-0 loss in the United Arab Emirates, a record loss for Malaysia. On social media, some members of fan groups, claimed that the flares and fireworks were protests against Football Association of Malaysia's handling of the game.
Elsewhere, Palestine held the United Arab Emirates to a 0-0 draw in a Group A match watched by 10,000 fans on the outskirts of Jerusalem.
Palestinians from the West Bank and Israel provided plenty of boisterous support for their team, which rarely gets to host high-profile international matches.