Football: Asian big guns blast towards Olympics

SINGAPORE, June 19, 2011 (AFP) - Asian zone heavyweights Australia, Japan and South Korea put one foot in the final phase of London Olympics qualifying with emphatic home victories on Sunday.

Asia's top trio all scored three times against Middle Eastern opposition, making them strong favourites to reach the third and last round in Thursday's away legs.

Australia sparkled to a 3-0 victory over trouble-hit Yemen, South Korea overcame dogged Jordan 3-1 and Japan beat Kuwait by the same margin but were disappointed not to score more.

However North Korea, who played their first World Cup since 1966 last year, are up against it after losing 1-0 at home to UAE, courtesy of Ali Mabkhout's 56th-minute strike.

The continent's leading teams are all in action for the two-legged ties, with the winners split into three groups of four for the final phase, which winds up in March.

In seaside Gosford, striker Jason Hoffman scored twice and midfielder Mitch Nichols got the other to put Australia within touching distance of the next round.

Hoffman headed home a Sebastian Ryall cross in the 14th minute, as Australia had nine attempts on goal before Yemen's first shot was saved by goalkeeper Andrew Redmayne on the half-hour.

Nichols added Australia's second in the 67th minute after a cross by the ever-present Hoffman, who rounded off the scoring in stoppage time.

"It could have been more to be honest. We missed some really easy chances and their goalkeeper made some outstanding saves as well," said coach Aurelio Vidmar.

"We're pleased with that and now we'll hopefully go to Newcastle and finish it off."

Thursday's return match has been moved from Yemen to Australia's Newcastle due to security concerns in the Middle Eastern country following mass protests and unrest against the ruling regime.

South Korea were made to work harder for their win and had to come from a goal down after Jordan's Mahmoud Saleem Mahmoud Za'tara opened the scoring in first-half injury time.

But Kim Tae-Hwan equalised 11 minutes into the second half before midfielder Yoon Bit-Garam calmly converted a penalty with 13 minutes to go. Substitute Kim Dong-Sub increased their margin with an 86th-minute header.

In Toyota, Japan dominated Kuwait but were left kicking themselves after letting slip an away goal which gave the visitors a lifeline in Thursday's return leg.

As Japan peppered the Kuwait goal, Cerezo Osaka midfielder Hiroshi Kiyotake nodded the opener on 18 minutes before Mizuki Hamada grabbed a second headed goal eight minutes before half-time.

And Japan were cruising when Kashima Antlers forward Yuya Osako poached the third just after the hour-mark. But Jaber Jazea pounced on a defensive mistake on 68 minutes to give Kuwait hope of pulling off a huge upset later this week.

"It was a disappointing game, because we let in a goal. We could have scored more goals. But we can go to Kuwait in very good form," said Kiyotake.

This week's 12 winning teams will be split into three groups of four for final qualifying, with the three top sides all gaining automatic entry to the Olympics.

The second-placed teams go into a three-way round robin, with the winner playing off against a side from the African confederation for another ticket to the Games.

Men's football is played as an under-23 tournament at the Olympics, although the rules allow for three over-age players.

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