South Korea qualifies for World Cup, Syria goes to playoff

Australia's Tomi Juric, left and Thailand's Adisorn Promrak, right in action during their World Cup Group B qualifying soccer match in Melbourne, Australia, Tuesday, Sept. 05, 2017. (AP Photo/Andy Brownbill)

TASHKENT, Uzbekistan (AP) South Korea overcame a troubled campaign to qualify for next year’s World Cup on Tuesday, while war-torn Syria kept its dream alive.

A goalless draw away to Uzbekistan was enough for South Korea on the final day of Asian group games. Syria goes to a playoff following its 2-2 draw with Iran, which had already qualified.

The South Koreans hit the woodwork twice in the first half, but endured some nervy moments in the second against Uzbekistan, which was in contention to make its first World Cup appearance.

When the final whistle blew, several South Korean players sank to the ground in relief before starting some low-key celebrations. South Korea had risked missing the World Cup for the first time since 1982 after a campaign which included surprise losses to Qatar and China.

Despite the war raging at home, Syria had come close to qualifying for its first World Cup, and would have done so had it held on to a 1-0 lead away to Iran. Syria must now get through two playoff rounds to reach the tournament in Russia.

Tamer Mohamed’s 13th-minute header put the Syrians ahead, but Iran fought back to show why it was unbeaten in competitive games for over three years.

Sardar Azmoun pulled Iran level in first-half stoppage time, using his chest to knock in a rebound, and he struck again from close range in the 64th when Syria failed to clear a long throw-in.

Syria made it 2-2 in stoppage time when Omar Al Soma put the ball between Iranian goalkeeper Alireza Salimi’s legs.

Conflict at home put huge obstacles in Syria’s path. The team played all its home games in Malaysia, 4,500 miles (7,240 kilometers) away to the south-east. But it still managed strong performances against some of Asia’s best teams, earning draws with South Korea and Iran in previous qualifiers.

Earlier, a nervous Australia lineup wasted dozens of opportunities and needed a late winner to edge Thailand 2-1 on Tuesday and maintain hope of gaining automatic entry to the World Cup.

Australia moved into second place, meaning Saudi Arabia has to win at home against already-qualified Japan to overhaul the Socceroos for the second direct spot from Group B. The Saudis entered the last matchday in Asian qualifying tied with Australia with 16 points but with a superior goal difference.

The top two teams in each group go directly to the World Cup, and the third-place teams go into a playoff for a shot at an intercontinental qualifier.

The Australians went in with an attacking mindset but were unable to capitalize on almost three-quarters of the possession in the first half, when they twice hit the post and forced two good saves from Thai goalkeeper Sinthaweechai Hathairattanakool.

Tommy Rogic hit the post again in the 67th minute, Australia’s 24th shot, two minutes before Tomi Juric finally broke the deadlock when he nodded in a cross from Aaron Mooy.

Pokklaw Anan got a surprise equalizer for Thailand against the run of play in the 82nd, but Mathew Leckie ensured Australia’s win in the 86th with a left-foot drive from close range after Sinthaweechai failed to punch the ball clear of the goalmouth.

”A little bit frustrating,” Juric said. ”Leaves us in a position of waiting for another result to go our way.

”Obviously the win is what we need, but we needed more goals for the goal difference. That was the frustrating thing tonight – it could have been five, easily.”

Australia was unbeaten in qualifying until it lost at Japan last week, a result that ensured Japan secured first place in Group B and a spot in Russia next year. Thailand finished last in the group with two points.