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SINGAPORE (AFP) – Asian giants Iran, South Korea and Australia reached the 2014 World Cup but Uzbekistan narrowly failed to book their place on a dramatic night of action on Tuesday.
Australia left it late before substitute striker Josh Kennedy earned a 1-0 win over Iraq in Sydney, enough to take the Socceroos through to their third successive World Cup.
Later, Iran edged a grudge match with South Korea 1-0 in Ulsan to qualify top of Group A, giving the hosts some nervous moments as they awaited news from Tashkent, where rivals Uzbekistan were playing Qatar.
The Uzbeks smashed five second-half goals past the Qataris but despite their 5-1 win, they failed to reach their target of winning by seven goals and now go into a play-off series against either Jordan or Oman, who play later.
Iran, South Korea and Australia now join Japan, the Asian Cup-holders who booked their ticket a fortnight ago, at next year's World Cup as the only countries to have qualified alongside hosts Brazil.
Although all four Asian qualifiers are familiar names at the World Cup, the year-long elimination process has been hard-fought and came down to the last week of the final group stage.
Tensions were high on Tuesday evening and especially in Ulsan, where South Korea's game with Iran had been preceded by some angry verbal jousting between the opposing camps.
Ex-Middlesbrough striker Lee Dong-Gook tested Rahman Ahmadi with a stinging attempt from distance but despite dominating the first half, South Korea struggled to create clear chances.
Iran started the second period with more ambition and on 59 minutes, they were suddenly in front thanks to a defensive howler from Kim Young-Gwon and the alert thinking of Reza Ghoochannejhad.
Defender Kim failed to make a simple clearance on the touchline and had his pocket picked by Ghoochannejhad, who scampered goalwards and bent a left-footed shot around Jung Sung-Ryong.
South Korea pressed desperately for the equaliser and Kim Young-Gwon nearly made amends for his mistake when he put a free header wide near the end. Lee Keun-Ho also nearly headed the leveller in injury time.
However the Taeguk Warriors clung on to Group B's second automatic qualifying spot and reached their ninth World Cup on goal difference, despite Uzbekistan's heroics in Tashkent.
Uzbekistan were the aggressors from the start and on 36 minutes, striker Alexander Geynrikh was just inches from putting the hosts ahead -- before they fell behind to a sucker-punch seconds later.
Trying to play the ball out of defence, a hard pass cannoned off the legs of Server Djeparov and into the path of Hasan Al Haydos, and the forward picked out Abdulqadir Ilyas who finished with aplomb to give Qatar a shock 1-0 lead.
Qatar defender Ibrahim Abdulmajed nearly did Uzbekistan a favour when his header from a corner crashed against his own crossbar, and Jasur Khasanov tested the woodwork again with a sweeping volley from the edge of the box.
Geynrikh had the ball in the net but was flagged offside, and in first-half injury time he wriggled through two defenders but saw his close-range shot denied by goalkeeper Abonora.
Uzbekistan again took up residence in Qatari territory in the second half and they finally got their reward when Timur Kapadze floated in a long ball and Djeparov's quick cross was poked home by substitute striker Bahodir Nasimov on 60 minutes.
Oleg Zoteev's dribble and shot put Uzbekistan in front on 72 minutes, and the massed fans at Bunyodkor Stadium dared to dream when Nasimov scored their third from close range two minutes later.
Late strikes from Odil Ahmedov and Ulugbek Bakaev raised excitement to fever pitch but the clock quickly ticked through injury time and Uzbekistan were kept waiting for a first foray to football's biggest stage.
Earlier in Sydney, Australia wasted countless chances in wet conditions before coach Holger Osieck replaced a visibly angry Tim Cahill with Josh Kennedy in the 77th minute.
But the towering Nagoya Grampus striker justified the substitution when he saved the day with a clinical 83rd-minute header that sent the crowd wild.
"I'm sorry it wasn't pretty, but we beat them," said captain Lucas Neill.
"We've got to keep pushing ourselves," he added. "Let's look at the positives tonight -- we're going to Brazil!"