South Korea were held to a surprise 0-0 draw by Syria in 2018 World Cup qualifying on Tuesday, while Japan got their campaign back on track with a 2-0 win over Thailand and Australia beat United Arab Emirates 1-0 to top their group.
The Koreans, bidding for a ninth consecutive appearance at the World Cup finals, were lucky to hang on for a 3-2 win over China in their Group A opener last week and again failed to shine against Syria, ranked 57 places below them at No. 105.
With Son Heung-min returning to England to fight for his place at Tottenham Hotspur, Korea had little sharpness about them up front and had few clear cut chances in a match played in Malaysia as Syria's civil war means they have to play "home" games at neutral venues.
Ki Sung-yueng and Lee Chung-yong both went close for South Korea, who could easily have been down to 10 men when defender Oh Jae-suk 'clotheslined' Mahmoud Al Mawas as he broke clear on goal. Referee Chris Beath opted for leniency and showed a yellow card.
South Korea coach Uli Stielike was unhappy with the way Syria tried to slow the game down but said his side had to shoulder the blame for failing to break them down.
"It was tough to deal with the time-wasting," he said. "But in the end it was our fault for failing to score."
There was late drama as Uzbekistan edged Qatar 1-0 to top Group A with six points. Egor Krimets' powerful header from a Alexander Geynrikh corner in the 86th minute handed the visitors victory.
In the next round of group matches in October, Uzbekistan will face second-placed Iran, who drew 0-0 with China. South Korea, third on four points, will host Qatar, while China will play second-from bottom Syria.
JAPAN GET BACK TO WINNING WAYS
In Group B, South Korea's neighbours Japan scored an important victory over Thailand to steady the ship after their shock 2-1 loss to UAE in Saitama last week. Genki Haraguchi (17th minute) and Takuma Asano (75th) got the goals.
"This game was very difficult psychologically," Kyodo news quoted Japan coach Vahid Halilhodzic as saying. "After our first match we were under so much pressure and we had to get out from under that."
In the other Group B games, Saudi Arabia fought back from a goal down to beat Iraq 2-1 thanks to two late penalties from Nawaf Al Abid.
Australia's record goal scorer Tim Cahill came off the bench in the second half to hand his side all three points against UAE, after he tapped in a Brad Smith cross which deceived the hosts' defence.
The Socceroos, missing Mile Jedinak through injury, dominated the game which was low on clear-cut chances.
Australia top Group B on goal difference and will face second-placed Saudi Arabia in a mouth-watering clash in Jeddah on Oct. 6, when third-placed Japan host Iraq. Thailand, bottom of the group, will travel to Abu Dhabi to face UAE.
The top two in Groups A and B qualify for the World Cup in Russia while the third-placed teams meet to decide, who goes into a CONCACAF-Asian Zone playoff for a place at the finals.
(Reporting by Peter Rutherford in Seoul; Editing by Toby Davis)