South Korea booked their place in the next round of World Cup qualification on Wednesday with a 2-0 home win over Kuwait, but Frank Rijkaard’s Saudi Arabia side crashed out in Australia.
The 2002 World Cup semi-finalists went into the Kuwait game knowing defeat could spell an embarrassing early end to their campaign to reach Brazil 2014, but two second-half goals saw them through as Group B winners.
The Saudis led Australia 2-1 at half-time but conceded three goals in five minutes to go down 4-2 as the Socceroos cemented their position at the top of Group D, while Oman beat Thailand at home to claim the second qualifying spot.
Saudi Arabia qualified for four consecutive World Cups from 1994 to 2006 but it is their lesser-known neighbours who will be in the draw for the final Asian group qualifying stage, to be made in Kuala Lumpur on March 9.
Needing a win to advance, Kuwait started aggressively in Seoul, consistently breaking through with their quick short passing game, and South Korea had goalkeeper Jung Sung-Ryong to thank for their clean sheet at half-time.
Kuwaiti midfielder Waleed Ali launched a shot from the edge of the penalty area in the seventh minute, forcing Jung into a punching save, before a Bader Al-Mutwa drive stung the keeper’s palms around the half-hour mark.
But K-League star Lee Dong-Gook broke the deadlock in the 65th minute, stroking home his fifth goal in four career games against Kuwait when the visitors failed to clear a loose ball.
Six minutes later Choi Hyo-Jin found Lee Keun-Ho in the box after stealing a Kuwaiti clearance and the forward gave his side a two-goal cushion.
South Korea, seeking their eighth consecutive appearance in the tournament proper, will be joined in the next round by Lebanon, who finished second in Group B despite a surprise 4-2 defeat away to the United Arab Emirates.
China salvaged a measure of pride from their failed qualification campaign with a 3-1 home win over Jordan, who had already made it through to the next round.
Three defeats and two wins had left China with no chance of making it to Brazil 2014, but a brace from midfielder Hao Junmin and a late strike from substitute Yu Dabao gave the fans in Guangzhou something to cheer about.
Iraq hammered Singapore 7-1 in Doha to pip Jordan to the top spot in Group A, leaving the city-state team with zero points from six games.
In Melbourne, the Saudis dominated first-half possession, but Australia emerged stronger after the break and equalised with around 20 minutes remaining when the impressive Alex Brosque laid on a ball for Harry Kewell to sidefoot home.
The hosts then netted twice in quick succession to take a 4-2 lead, with Brosque glancing home a Brett Emerton cross for his second and Emerton scoring to leave Rijkaard shaking his head in disbelief.
Australia skipper Lucas Neill admitted Saudi Arabia caught them off guard on Wednesday.
“It wasn’t the best of first-half performances, we knew the Saudis would come at us, but it was a great response and a good talk at half-time and passing the ball around quickly in the second half opened them up a little bit,” Neill said.
“It’s March 9 now and then we can look ahead and we can really focus in on what we have to do to get to Brazil, the games are going to get tougher than this and we’re going to have to be at our best.”
Uzbekistan finished unbeaten on top of Group C after an Aleksandr Shadrin goal gave them a 1-0 win over Japan in Toyota, while Tajikistan and North Korea drew 1-1.
Both Uzbekistan and Japan were already assured of progressing, but the Uzbeks will be pleased to have continued their miserly defensive record: they have conceded just one goal in qualifying so far.
In Group E, hat-tricks from Mohammed Tayeb and Sayid Dhiya helped Bahrain to hammer Indonesia 10-0, but it was in vain as Qatar equalised late in Tehran to get the draw they needed to progress with table-toppers Iran.
The 10 teams through to the next round will play a round-robin format in two groups of five during June, with the top two in each group qualifying for the finals in Brazil.
The third-placed sides will then meet in September, with the winner facing an inter-continental playoff for the right to play in Brazil.