Saitama (Japan) (AFP) – Japan were left fuming over a refereeing howler after a shock defeat to UAE rocked their World Cup qualifying campaign on Thursday, while South Korea held off China to win 3-2.

Asian champions Australia overcame a nervy start to beat Iraq 2-0 as Asia’s third round of 2018 World Cup qualifying got under way, with 12 teams vying for four automatic berths.

Japan were favourites to beat UAE in Saitama and they took the lead through AC Milan forward Keisuke Honda’s header in the 11th minute.

But Ahmed Khalil’s sumptuous free kick and penalty either side of half-time ensured a 2-1 win for the visitors, who also got lucky when Japan had a late equaliser disallowed.

Japan should have finished the game 2-2 but the officials failed to spot that Takuma Asano’s shot, clawed away by Khalid Eisa, had crossed the line, as shown by TV replays.

Qatari referee Abdulrahman Al Jassim waved away Japan’s protests as the Blue Samurai crashed once again to UAE, their conquerors in last year’s Asian Cup quarter-finals.

“The referee was unacceptable,” thundered Japan coach Vahid Halilhodzic, when asked about the Asano ghost goal. He added that 2-1 was a “horrible result”.

“They had many chances, and they lost two goals after a free kick and a penalty kick that could have been avoided,” glowered the Bosnian.

– China fightback –

In Seoul, Zheng Zhi’s early own goal ultimately condemned China to a 3-2 defeat to South Korea despite a spirited fight-back from the visitors.

China’s talisman became their fall-guy as he inadvertently bundled Son Heung-Min’s free kick into his own net on 20 minutes at Seoul World Cup Stadium.

Lee Chung-Yong and Koo Ja-Cheol both scored to pile on the pain for China but the visitors nearly hauled their way back into it following late strikes from Yu Hai and Hao Junmin.

However, a precious equaliser eluded Gao Hongbo’s men and they start with a defeat as they embark on the year-long final qualifying group stage.

While South Korea are targeting a 10th World Cup, China have only ever reached the showpiece once, in 2002, although President Xi Jinping has ambitions of awakening the sleeping giant and turning it into a global football power.

Earlier, hotshots Massimo Luongo and Tomi Juric were both on target as Australia overcame a dogged Iraq outfit to win 2-0 in Perth.

The Socceroos were strong favourites but they did not have it all their own way until QPR’s Luongo and FC Luzern striker Juric scored in a seven-minute, second-half burst.

“It was a great way to come back today,” said Juric, who was recalled by coach Ange Postecoglou after missing Australia’s friendlies against Greece in June.

“There definitely could have been a few more (goals) on our side, but it is a great result to start this campaign.”

The top two in each of Asia’s two groups of six will qualify for the World Cup in Russia, while the third-placed sides will face each other for the right to contest an intercontinental play-off.