Iran, UAE win Asian Cup qualifiers
A hat trick by Javad Nekounam helped Iran rout 10-man Lebanon 5-0 to kick off its 2015 Asian Cup qualifying campaign while the United Arab Emirates got past Vietnam 2-1 on Wednesday.
Kuwait easily beat another Southeast Asian minnow, dismantling lackluster Thailand 3-1 in a Group B match.
However, Uzbekistan, a 2011 Asian Cup semifinalist, was held to a surprising 0-0 at home by Hong Kong in Group E.
Playing in front of 10,000 supporters in Tehran, Iran was the aggressor from the start 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 to put the Iranians in front.
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, 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.
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.
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. 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.
In the highest-profile encounter on matchday one, three-time Asian Cup champion Saudi Arabia was playing China in Group C.
Host Australia, reigning champion Japan, South Korea and North Korea have already secured spots at the 2015 Asian Cup.
Japan played a friendly against Latvia at Kobe on Wednesday, with forward Shinji Okazaki scoring twice in a 3-0 win.
Japan coach Alberto Zaccheroni selected a strong squad for the Latvia match, using it as a warmup for next month's World Cup qualifier against Jordan.
Okazaki opened the scoring in the 41st minute when his right-foot shot deflected off the left post.
Keisuke Honda made it 2-0 on the hour before Okazaki took a pass from substitute Ryoichi Maeda and beat the Latvian goalkeeper to put the result beyond doubt.
"We played much better in the second half,'' Zaccheroni said. "We hadn't played for almost two months so it took us some time to adjust but we were much better after the break and if we continue to play like that we'll be in good shape.''
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