AL AHSA (Saudi Arabia): When Saleh Al Shehri fired Saudi Arabia into a sixth-minute lead here at the Prince Abdullah bin Jalawi Stadium, it seemed Pakistan were in for a long night under pouring rain.
But Stephen Constantine’s men showed great fighting resolve in their first-ever game in the second round of FIFA World Cup qualifying to hold the Saudis from scoring any more goals till half-time, only to concede as soon as the second-half began.
Al Shehri doubled his tally and, almost a year since they stunned eventual world champions Argentina at the last World Cup in Qatar, Roberto Mancini’s Saudi Arabia opened their bid to qualify for the 48-team tournament in North America with a 4-0 victory to take the early lead in Group ‘G’ with Jordan being held to a 1-1 draw by Tajikistan in the other game.
Pakistan host Tajikistan in their second group game on Tuesday and will take heart from this performance even though Saudi Arabia played the first half of the game at walking pace after taking the lead.
Al Shehri, who scored the leveller in Saudi Arabia’s 2-1 victory over Argentina in Qatar, latched on to a loose ball and drove into the box before letting fly with his left foot, the strike into the far corner giving goalkeeper Yousuf Butt no chance.
Pakistan had a chance to level 10 minutes later, Fareedullah sending a close-range header over the bar after the cross by Abdul Samad Arshad.
The Saudis came into the second half with more purpose and a surging run into the box by Al Shehri saw him brought down by Mamoon Musa Khan. Yousuf guessed correctly but Al Shehri’s spot-kick had too much power.
The Saudis wanted more but were frustrated by the Pakistan defence and only got their last two goals in stoppage time. First Abdul Rehman Ghareeb netted with a first-time volley and then his fellow substitute Abdullah Hadi Radif rifled in an unstoppable shot after cutting inside from the left.
Saudi Arabia’s fellow Asian heavyweights also opened their campaigns comfortably with Australia, Japan and South Korea plundering 17 goals between them in big wins on home soil.
Australia, who reached the last 16 at the Qatar World Cup before bowing out 2-1 to Argentina, hammered Bangladesh 7-0 in Melbourne with Jamie Maclaren stepping off the bench to score a second half hat-trick.
“Seven goals, but it could have been more, for me too, but three points and we move on,” said Melbourne City striker Maclaren. “I’m not even sure [goalkeeper] Maty [Ryan] had a save to make so proud of the team, but we obviously know the next games are going to be harder.”
Australia are in Group ‘I’ alongside Palestine and Lebanon, who played out a goalless draw in Sharjah.
Mitchell Duke hit a brace late in the first half as Australia trampled over the 183rd-ranked south Asians at Melbourne Rectangular Stadium.
Goals from Harry Souttar and Brandon Borrello had given the hosts a two-goal lead inside the first 20 minutes while Duke then scored twice in four minutes, nodding in a header from Metcalfe’s assist before firing in a rebound off the post.
Maclaren did all the damage in the second half, scoring from a Jordan Bos cross shortly after the restart before pouncing again in the 70th when a Massimo Luongo shot pinged off goalkeeper Mitul Marma.
Lewis Miller then set up Maclaren’s hat-trick goal in the 84th minute with another neat cross and it could have been even worse for Bangladesh but Massimo Luongo missed a late penalty.
Japan’s Ayase Ueda scored a hat-trick as a largely second-string side defeated Myanmar 5-0 after Hajime Moriyasu chose to leave many of his leading performers on the bench ahead of their more exacting Group ‘B’ clash with Syria in Jeddah on Tuesday.
Ueda put the Japanese ahead in the 11th minute at Suita Stadium outside Osaka when he headed in Takumi Minamino’s lofted pass and Daichi Kamada doubled the advantage 17 minutes later from distance.
Ritsu Doan’s angled through ball set up Ueda to claim his second in first-half injury time with a neat first-time finish and he completed his hat trick five minutes into the second half after another Minamino dink unlocked the Myanmar defence.
Doan scored the fifth four minutes from time with a cool finish as the Japanese made light work of their visitors.
Japan coach Moriyasu demanded even more from his side despite their handsome victory.
“We had chances to score more goals,” said Moriyasu, who took Japan to the last 16 at the Qatar World Cup following stunning wins over Germany and Spain.
The South Koreans, meanwhile, scored four times in the second half to hand Singapore a 5-0 defeat at Seoul World Cup Stadium, with captain Son Heung-min among the scorers.
Cho Gue-sung put Juergen Klinsmann’s team in front a minute before the halftime break and Hwang Hee-chan added the second four minutes into the second half.
Son hit the third in the 63rd minute, bending the ball left-footed into the top corner from outside the box, before Hwang Ui-jo’s penalty and Lee Kang-in’s late effort confirmed the victory for the Koreans in Group ‘C’.
“A huge compliment to the team, a very professional performance,” German legend and South Korea coach Klinsmann said. “Five-nil is a nice scoreline to read but it doesn’t really show you the energy and effort you have to invest in order to get to that scoreline.“Also in Group ‘C’, Wang Shangyuan scored 16 minutes from time to give China a 2-1 win in Thailand and join South Korea at the top of the early standings.
Iran top Group ‘E’ after Sardar Azmoun’s early double helped them on the way to a 4-0 win over Hong Kong. They are joined on three points by Uzbekistan, who beat Turkmenistan 3-1.
Almoez Ali scored four times as Qatar trounced Afghanistan 8-1 in Group ‘A’, where India edged Kuwait 1-0.
Malaysia notched up a 4-3 win over Kyrgyzstan but Oman top Group ‘D’ after they beat Chinese Taipei 3-0.
In Group ‘F’, Vietnam beat the Philippines 2-0 and Indonesia were beaten 5-1 by Iraq.