By Patrick Johnston
SINGAPORE (Reuters) - Three moments of late magic helped Uzbekistan, Iraq and Qatar grab key 1-0 wins in World Cup qualifying on Wednesday as Asian champions Japan rode their luck before edging to the brink of a place in Brazil.
Nine of the 10 teams remaining in the two groups of Asian qualifying have been hard to split after numerous low scoring, close-fought matches with Japan proving the exception.
The Blue Samurai have looked a class above the competition so far and are all but assured of being the first Asian side through to the final after extending their Group B lead to eight points over Australia and Oman. Iraq also trail Japan, who have three matches remaining, by eight points.
Alberto Zaccheroni's side can count themselves slightly fortunate in escaping the heat of Muscat with a 2-1 win over a wasteful Oman after Shinji Okazaki scored the winner a minute from time.
"I would like to compliment Oman's players. They showed great heart, and the heat made it difficult for us to play our style. I'm proud of the players for sticking to the task," the Italian coach told reporters.
While Japan can seal a berth in the 2014 tournament in Brazil in their next match away to Jordan in March, the identity of the three other Asian sides that will compete in 2014 remains a mystery.
Iraq put themselves back in the fight for a place in Brazil as the 2007 Asian champions claimed their first win of the campaign thanks to a sharp 86th minute strike by Hammadi Ahmed.
The win for the youthful Iraqi side, missing several of their first-teamers through injury, suspension and personal choices made by Brazilian coach Zico, moved them off the bottom of the group and level on points with Australia and Oman on five.
"I knew that this young squad did not have the experience that we might need, but I was confident of their abilities," Zico told reporters.
"I have told my players that football is about effort and what you give on the field and it's not about who you are or how big is your career."
The match took place in Qatar because of the security issues in Iraq and was one of two qualifiers taking place in the country that will host the 2022 World Cup.
Qatar were playing host to Lebanon in the other match in the tiny Gulf country in a drab, defensive-minded encounter that sprung to life with a brilliant long-range goal from Sebastian Soria.
The Uruguyan-born striker's 30-metre effort leaving the visiting goalkeeper stationary and giving the Qatari's their second win of the campaign after following up their 1-0 success in Beirut in June.
"The players were affected negatively by the pressure and it showed in their performance in the first half. But I talked to them at halftime about this and told them to get rid of the pressure which happened when we scored," coach Paulo Autuori told reporters.
Qatar moved on to seven points from five matches in Group A level with South Korea, who slumped to a 2-1 home friendly defeat by Australia on Wednesday.
Uzbekistan now lead the way in the tight group on eight points after they upset Iran 1-0 in Tehran in another cagey Asian encounter which was shorn of goalscoring opportunities before being settled by yet another moment of late, individual brilliance.
AFC Player-of-the-Year Serve Djeparov showed why he has won the award twice by delivering a scintillating free-kick which left Ulugbek Bakaev the simple task of prodding home for a 71st minute winner.
Asian World Cup qualifying resumes in March with the ever-improving Uzbeks at home to bottom-side Lebanon and closing in a first World Cup appearance.
(Reporting by Patrick Johnston, editing by Pritha Sarkar)