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.
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