Saudi Arabia, Iran win Asian Cup qualifiers

Saudi Arabia kicked off its 2015 Asian Cup qualifying campaign

Wednesday with a 2-1 victory over China, ending a dismal run of

form that saw coach Frank Rijkaard fired after the team crashed out

of the Gulf Cup and failed to qualify for the 2014 World Cup.

China was one of several East Asian teams that fared poorly in

the opening round of the region’s premier tournament.

United Arab Emirates edged Vietnam 2-1 in Group E and Kuwait

beat Thailand 3-1 in Group B. Jordan, meanwhile, routed Singapore

4-0 in Group A, while Qatar was a 2-0 winner over Malaysia in Group

D. The only bright spot was Hong Kong holding Uzbekistan, a 2011

Asian Cup semifinalist, to a surprising 0-0 at home in a Group C

match. Elsewhere in Group C, Iraq beat Indonesia 1-0.

Saudi Arabia, which has fallen to 188 in the FIFA world

rankings, was desperate to show it could deliver a win for former

Real Madrid coach Juan Ramon Lopez Caro. China, which has also had

its footballing disappointments recently, was hoping to shrug off

its failure to qualify for the 2014 World Cup and the departure of

top strikers Didier Drogba and Nicolas Anelka from Shanghai

Shenhua.

Fahad al-Muwallad opened the scoring for Saudi Arabia in the

23rd minute only for Zhao Xuri to pull China level six minutes

later. Substitute Naif Hazazi scored the winner in the 77th minute,

turning home a cross from Al Ittihad teammate Al Muwallad.

”I’m so happy with the result,” Lopez Caro said. ”We won the

match and I’m so glad that the players fought until the end of the

game. They made all the fans who attended the game very pleased

with the performance and result.”

A hat trick by Javad Nekounam helped Iran rout 10-man Lebanon

5-0 in Group B. Playing in front of 10,000 supporters in Tehran,

Iran seized the initiative against a Lebanon side which has seen

its form dip since reaching the final qualifying stage of the 2014

World Cup.

Mojtaba Jabbari slotted a pass to striker Reza Ghoochannejhad

who scored the first of two goals in the 26th minute.

Nekounam doubled Iran’s lead just before halftime and got his

second when he converted a penalty in the 61st to put the match out

of reach. With Lebanon a man short after the dismissal of Nour

Mansour, the Iranians, who have struggled to score in their 2014

World Cup campaign, took full advantage. Ghoochannejhad made it 4-0

a minute later from close range off a pass from midfielder Ashkan

Dejagah. Nekounam scored his third in the 80th.

Kuwait, coming off a third-place finish in the Gulf Cup, had

chances in the first 10 minutes before taking the lead in the 25th

against Thailand. Striker Yousef Naser split the defense with a

pass to Bader al-Mutwa whose shot was helped into the net by

Thailand defender Theerathon Bunmathon in an effort to clear.

Thailand had a penalty appeal waved away by the referee after

Teerasil Dangda was upended in the box in the 33rd, and Teerasil

had his low shot just saved by Kuwait keeper Nawaf al-Khaldi before

the break. The Thais kept the pressure on in the second half but

couldn’t find the equalizer.

Kuwait doubled its lead when unmarked defender Hussain Fadhel

rose to head home a free kick in the 59th. Substitute Hamad Aman

made it 3-0 seven minutes later before Thailand pulled one back in

the 76th courtesy of a long-range effort from substitute Chanathip

Songkrasin.

At Hanoi, the UAE was hoping to build on momentum after it won

last month’s Gulf Cup. It did just that after Ahmed Khalil gave UAE

an early lead with a penalty in the 6th minute. Vietnam’s Quoc Anh

Huynh equalized in the 59th and Habib Fardan scored in the 66th to

help the Persian Gulf side secure all three points.

Host Australia, reigning champion Japan, South Korea and North

Korea have already secured spots at the 2015 Asian Cup.

Jordan took the lead through Abdallah Deeb in the 18th before

Khalil Baniateyah doubled his team’s lead in the 52nd and a brace

by Ahmad Hayel in the 55th and 74th put the match out of reach.

Oman edged Syria 1-0 in the other Group A encounter.

Khalfan Ibrahim opened the scoring for Qatar in the 55th minute

and substitute Yusef Ahmed scored in extra time to give new coach

Fahad Thani a much-needed victory. Thani replaced Brazilian Paulo

Autuori after the 2022 World Cup host crashed out of the Gulf

Cup.

Bahrain, also struggling since nearly reaching the 2010 World

Cup, beat Yemen 2-0 in the other Group D encounter played in the

United Arab Emirates due to security concerns in Yemen.