Heartbreak for Vietnam despite stunning comeback; Japan flatter to deceive again
Gabriel Tan
October 7, 2021
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There was no shortage of drama as action resumed in the third round of Asian qualifiers for the 2022 FIFA World Cup on Thursday.

A host of Europe-based stars delivered the goods with Tottenham's Son Heung-min, Porto's Mehdi Taremi and Espanyol's Wu Lei proving pivotal for their teams.

While South Korea, Iran and Saudi Arabia continued their unbeaten starts, there was misery for traditional heavyweights Japan and late heartbreak for upstarts Vietnam.

We look at the major storylines to emerge from Match Day 3 of the Asian World Cup qualifiers.

Son answers critics but South Korea can still offer more

Ahead of Thursday's action, South Korea received their fair share of criticism after last month's two qualifiers -- a lackadaisical 0-0 draw with Iraq that was followed by an unconvincing 1-0 win over Lebanon.

In particular, questions were raised over Son's ability to replicate his stunning club form on the international stage. On Thursday, the Tottenham star produced the perfect response.

As South Korea looked to have let three points slip from their grasp after Syria scored an 84th-minute equaliser, Son's instincts inside the box saw him fire home a winner with just a minute remaining.

Unlike the result against Lebanon, the narrow margin of victory was by no means an indictment on Paulo Bento's side given that Syria posed stern opposition, yet it also would not be harsh to suggest that more improvement can still be expected.

Despite his stunning start to life in the Premier League with Wolves, Hwang Hee-chan struggled to have an impact, although in Hwang In-beom -- who opened the scoring with a superb solo effort and dictated the tempo of the contest -- the Taegeuk Warriors boast a player who is slowly but surely developing into a complete midfield general.

Iran ride their luck... just as all top teams do

Iran expected a tough test against United Arab Emirates and they got just that, as they toiled to a 1-0 win to make it three wins from three to stay top of Group A.

The game's turning point came shortly after the hour mark when the Iranians had Shoja' Khalilzadeh sent off for a last-man foul on Ali Mabkhout, only for the decision to be overturned as UAE were penalised for offside in the build-up.

That paved the way for Taremi to score what proved to be the winner in the 70th minute, although Team Melli wasted a golden opportunity to wrap things up at the death when Sardar Azmoun had a penalty saved by Ali Khasif.

Fortune certainly played a part in the result but the best teams find a way to grind out results even when they are not at their best.

Iran certainly will not be complaining as they take a perfect record after three matches into next Tuesday's crucial encounter against the South Koreans.

Alarm bells could start ringing for Japan as Saudi Arabia look the part

Having qualified for the last six World Cups, Japan are widely regarded as one of Asia's best teams over the past two decades -- but they are currently at risk of missing out next summer.

Thursday's 1-0 loss to Saudi Arabia -- a second defeat in three matches -- added to Japan's woeful start, but their problems are not limited to just the results.

For all the intricate passing Japan coach Hajime Moriyasu's players displayed in all areas of the park, they rarely threatened once they worked the ball inside the area. Then a careless backpass by Gaku Shibasaki -- arguably their most gifted distributor -- sent Firas Al-Buraikan racing through to win it for Saudi Arabia.

Moriyasu's unwavering loyalty to his usual campaigners also means several players are still making the first XI despite not being in best form. It is peculiar that someone like Kyogo Furuhashi, who has made a big impact since signing for Celtic, continues to start on the bench.

With three standout teams in Group B in Australia, Saudi Arabia and Japan, there was always going to be a team missing out on automatic qualification. At the moment, it looks like that might be the Samurai Blue.

Brave Vietnam given another reminder of what they are now up against

Trailing China PR 2-0 with just ten minutes remaining, a third consecutive loss for Vietnam looked a certainty. Yet, the Southeast Asian underdogs just do not seem to throw in the towel with Park Hang-seo at the helm.

Late goals from Ho Tan Tai and Nguyen Tien Linh looked to have earned them a point in their maiden appearance at this stage of the qualifiers, until Wu broke their hearts with virtually the last kick of the match in the 95th minute to secure a 3-2 win for the Chinese.

Vietnam will continue to capture many hearts with their spirited displays regardless of how their campaign ultimately turns out, but they will also have to improve and learn that this is now the level of opposition they are up against competing against the continent's best teams.

They need not look much further than Wu, a player currently plying his trade in LaLiga and has previously scored against the mighty Barcelona. Wu's role in all three of China's goals made the difference despite Vietnam possibly having been the better team.

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